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