The New Extended Family

How well I remember those days of my childhood. We lived with my grandparents and uncle. Hot summer evenings in New York City were sometimes filled with all of us sitting around the open windows trying to catch a cool breeze while my grandfather talked about his childhood in Russia. Mostly, the stories consisted of the pranks he and his friends played on everyone in the village. All of us would laugh and laugh until our ribs hurt. My grandmother would then describe life on the Lower East Side during the early 1900's. Looking back, it has been clear, for a long time, that family life in the United States changed a lot during the last 50 years.

Recently, The New York Times reported a significant change in the structure of many American families. Evidently, there is a slow and steady return to the extended family system. For the sake of clarification, please know that the nuclear family is made up of two parents and their children living in one household. For a long time, there has been a turn away from the nuclear to the single family household made up of one parent and his or her children. The extended family, typical of American life during the early twentieth century, consists of multi generations living under one roof. These include parents, children, grandparents and, sometimes, uncles and aunts.

It is not entirely clear why there has been an increase in the number of extended families but there are several reason that could explain the change.

1. Retired people living in homes larger than they need at this point in their lives makes space available for family.

2. The economic downturn has resulted in young people further delaying when the leave home, or, they are forced to return home as a result of job loss.

3. Immigration is bringing people and their extended families into the United States.

4. More people are living longer and healthier lives and families are choosing to have them live at home with the rest of the family.

There can be many benefits to life in an extended family but there can also be many problems. Among the benefits of the extended family is the fact that there are many more adults available to help raise the children.  This takes a lot of pressure off of the parents to be the only role models and sources of discipline at home. Grandparents are also a great source of information for their grandchildren about the past. This is really important at a time when change is constantly occurring throughtout the world. Grandparents are a link to that past history that is part of family lore, history and ways of life during a different era.

However, their are many problems that can crop up.  When multiple generations are living together.  For example, you young parents or couples can experience the presence of relatives as intrusive.  In other words, boundaries become a much bigger issue in an extended family, as compared to a nuclear one.

Multiple generations living under one roof can create for trial grounds for conflict when attitudes and values vary.  The often stated phrase, "too many cooks spoil the broth," can hold very true in an extended family.  When people have varying opinions and styles about how things get done.  It's the old story of the conflict between generations.

Too often, grandparents end up taking on a parenting role when the parents are working. While that is often necessary, it changes the dynamic relationship between children and their grandparents. Traditionally, the grandparenting role is relaxed so that children know they can get things from them that their parents would refuse. However, the relaxed and playful but healthy spirit of grandparents ("Our job is to spoil the kids") is lost when they take on the parenting role.

Yes, I have fond memories of my childhood in an extended family in the Bronx. However, I also remember lots of arguments as the generations clashed with one another in what, at times, felt like a hopeless battle. My grandparents were from the old world and from the lower east side, my parents and uncle grew up in this country. My brother and I had a totally different view of life than either of the older generations.

Were we less lonely and depressed than people today growing up in single parent or nuclear families?

I am quite certain that those who are reading this article have a variety of differing experiences with their family backgrounds.  Therefore, readers are invited to send in their comments describing the various family experiences they had as children or are having at the present time. Once again, your comments, questions and experiences are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

  • Anonymous-1

    Dr. Schwartz,

    Great article. Thanks for sharing about your childhood. I am not sure I could have survived if I had lived with my parents when I was married. My father had a very short temper and used profanity regularly. He claimed that General Patton used such language to endear himself to his troops and that may have been true, but we were not soldiers and I didn't like being told I was a G.D. S.o.B. several times a day. He claims if he said that it was just because he couldn't find his keys or whatever, but it wasn't the inanimate keys that really had no ears that had to hear him saying this, but whoever happened to be within the sound of his voice. However, my own children have no idea the effort I have gone through to try and change from his style of parenting to one that was more conducive to a child's self esteem. The trouble was that it wasn't as easy not to emulate his short temper as I hoped it would be and as much as I hate to admit, I often totally blew it and even worse than my father for trying so hard to be different. Things have changed these days. People used to get away with parenting like my father, but they don't any more. But they don't care what I have been through. They don't care what good I have accomplished either. Now they just want to blame me for being the source of all problems that exist in this universe. If they had lived with my father they would have known, but they didn't, so they have no idea. I hqave totally failed and there is not much hope for me now.

  • Rajesh yedida

    Dear Dr.Schwartz,

    Very interesting article. I am from India. Traditionally in our culture sons always lived with their parents even after they had kids. Extended families were just normal in olden days ie around 60 or 70 years back. But as the times changed people started moving in search of better livlihood.

    I am thirty years old now married and had a kid. Because of my work I have to live away from my parents. But I strongly wish to live with them as they would be of great help with my kid. But my father is still working and he can not relocate.

    He thinks that its better to live separately as long as their (mom & dad) health permits. So when he can't work at all then only he wants to live with us.

    I am sure it will take around ten more years for that to happen. But I am afraid that I would be so involved in my family and career issues that we may not keep on the good relations which we have now.

    I don't really know how to fix this. As of now I visit my parents often like twice a month. we celebrate all the festivals together. But I don't think its possible as the children grow up.


    Rajesh Yedida

  • K Lenz

    Am really sorry about your father's personal legacy of cussing and bad temper. I also grew up in the 1950 and 60's with the ambivalent but secure background of extended family and have been equally dismayed over the ways that US parenting has regressed in many ways. I also have m son's fiance living here with my husband ad I --she also had 2 very immature and angry bio parents who lost c ustody of h er very young but she also went thru 5 foster homes-- only 1 of which was good. Recently when she and our son lost their first and second babies, and saw how awful her own father acted about it-- I had to tell her that sometimes people now almost have to kind of find what I call a Family of Choice--- instead of waiting for the impossible changing of the older parents which may never happen. So she is choosing to live with us instead of her own mixed up family-- even tho those hopes always die hard!!!! Maybe you could do that iwith your children-- to befriend a same age person that you think could inspire your own children- and yet give them a sense of love and respect for an older person-- then when they geet older pehaps choose the time to explain why you had to make that c hoice. I have d iscovered that OLD FASHIONED OR NOSTALGIC isn't always better-- what realy matters is how the older adult can relate and understand and love children !!!!! If they can get that from an "adopted" grandparent=== they will likely be better off for it instead of sticking with a totally angry granmpaw.

  • Anonymous-2

    There are properties popping up all over with cottages on them, along with the house, if the house is set up as such, the extended family has their own wing, it works out perfectly. I know two cases, one set of grandparents has a cottage over the warm months, so they are away, the other are gone six months to warmer climate and it benefits the grandchildren immensely. Stay positive.