Family Patterns

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Family Patterns

Throughout history, family composition has affected children's lives in important ways. The size and structure of the family and its capacity to sustain itself has played a critical role in how children are raised, their level of formal education, and whether or not they participate in the labor force. The principal household structures are nuclear, extended, and blended. The nuclear household contains two generations, parents and children. Extended families are multigenerational and include a wide circle of kin and servants. In blended householdsthe result of divorce or the death of a spouse followed by remarriage and a new generation of childrenmothers and fathers can be both biological parents and stepparents simultaneously.

Patterns of Family Structure through the Modern Era

Household structure took a variety of forms throughout Europe and North America during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. Research during the late twentieth century on European family systems situated these forms within sharp geographical boundaries over time. Those models, however, have since been adjusted, with consensus that geographical areas held more than one family pattern contemporaneously. Moreover, household systems sometimes changed over historical cycles. Finally, households were not necessarily autonomous but part of a wider network of relations with the community. The nuclear family, with late marriage preceded by a term of service in another household, was one common form in northwest Europe and North America, while multi-generational households were common to southern and eastern Europe. In Albania, Bulgaria, and European Russia as well as some parts of Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal, new households were formed when large ones divided or small ones combined. Marriage was not restricted to one son or daughter, there were few servants save for the rich, and households were home to multiple married couples. Children thus were supervised by co-resident adult kin. Elsewhere, in parts of central and southern France, Italy, Austria, and Germany, nuclear households combined with the fission and fusion processes of the East and South. Others contained two residential married couples consisting of parents and a married son. This usually occurred when there was not enough land to start a separate household.

Age at marriage and life expectancy were two important variables influencing household structure. Early marriage permitted a longer cycle of fertility than marrying late. Late marriage for women, from the mid to late twenties, was a means of restricting the number of births per household. Late marriage for men may or may not have affected the household's fertility cycle. It did, however, impinge upon the number of years fathers would be available to their children. The same was true for mothers. In fact one or both parents could be expected to die during the child's lifetime during the early modern period, creating the potential for economic hardship. There was a large percentage of orphans, many of whom were farmed out to other families as servants, laborers, or apprentices. They lived with their employers rather than in their natal households. In other cases, the death of a parent brought remarriage, new stepsiblings, and the constitution of a blended family. This was common, for example, in New England and the Chesapeake area of North America during the colonial era. Children too died young. Infant mortality rates were very high during the early modern period, making it highly uncertain whether parents could expect their children to reach an age when they could help support the family household or sustain them in their elderly years.

Inheritance practices also affected household structure. Primogeniture in the nuclear family insured that the patrimony remained intact, under the authority of the eldest son upon his father's death. That son was expected to marry and carry on the family's future over time. In a stem family, common in Austria, brothers might work for the eldest sibling but would not be allowed to marry or to inherit. Sisters might marry or take vows, yet only the eldest son would inherit the family estate. Partible inheritance, on the other hand, allowed for the formation of separate households among all children. Extended families, whose size was generally limited by high mortality and low fertility, practiced joint inheritance, that is, shared ownership of their patrimony.

During the early modern period another important variable influencing household structure was the family's proximity to a means of production and its ability to sustain itself. Climate, geography, the productivity of the land, and the strength of the labor market all shaped household composition, and consequently childhood experience, in important ways. They helped determine whether or not people married and at what age, whether to try and restrict fertility, whether children worked and/or went to school, and whether or not they would be able to live at home under the supervision of their parents. Affluent households might have had less incentive to restrict fertility since they did not depend on offspring to contribute to the family economy. They did quite frequently, however, restrict marriage in order to keep the family patrimony intact. Modest households, however, presented another case, for there children were an economic liability. Children could remain under the family hearth only if there was a viable means of sustaining them. Otherwise they were sent to work as domestic servants, laborers, or apprentices, living in employers' houses. Frequently in northwest Europe and North America, marriage took place only when the couple could afford to set up an independent household. Life-cycle servitude followed by late marriage was common because it was only at that stage that couples had accumulated the resources needed to set up the customary separate household. In extended families, on the other hand, where married children were joining a preestablished household, age at marriage was normally younger. The main consideration in deciding whether to marry was whether the new couple had the means to sustain a new family. Ten to 15 percent of the population never achieved the means to marry.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, land was perhaps the most important financial resource for the majority of the population. Its availability and how it was managed affected household composition. Firm assurance of land tenure, even in conditions where land was scarce, could encourage the establishment of more complex households, while adequate landed resources lent itself to the establishment of small, independent households. Peasant families required an adequate but not excess number of children to work the land. The nuclear household ideally contained several children spaced widely so that the oldest had left the household by the time the youngest came along, thus avoiding surplus mouths to feed. This was achieved by postponing marriage to the late twenties for men and early twenties for women, a practice that shortened their years of fertility. In addition, parents often sent their children to live and serve other households in need.

Yet not all peasants were able to avail themselves of land. Population growth and land shortage, characteristic of eighteenth-century North America, for example, forced sons to leave the family hearth. Landless villagers who sought employment where they could find it may not have formally married but procreated. This often resulted in pools of abandoned women and children. On the other hand, some peasant economies were replaced by more commercialized systems in which rural households were centers of production associated with the textile industry. Free markets created a greater demand for labor, drawing families into the production process. Children could remain at home rather than be farmed out to service if there was work allowing them to contribute to the sustenance of the household. This was also true when the center of production moved outside the home, a phenomenon characteristic of the nineteenth century. Fathers and children rather than mothers went to work in factories to support the family. In short, household composition and children's ability to remain living with their parents depended heavily on the availability of economic resources and employment.

The household as a center of production affected childhood experience. To age seven, even among slaveholders in North America, children were generally exempt from work. But from then on they were gradually brought into the labor force. On farms young children collected firewood and worms on the vines, herded livestock, weeded, and helped around the house. After age ten boys might be trained outside in fields and stables to learn to be farmers or herders, while girls were tracked into domestic work. By the eighteenth century children were helping with sewing, spinning, lace making, and nail making. Slave children in North America had a similar experience, with light chores to age six and domestic or farm labor after age ten. In midwest and western North America, where the labor market was small, gender roles were less rigid than normal. Girls worked in the tobacco fields and did herding, harvesting, and hunting while boys took on domestic duties as well as working outside. On the frontier, children assumed duties earlier than in other regions. The young panned gold as well as performing a variety of domestic chores.

When the household did not offer a means of production it affected children in dramatic ways. In the nineteenth century they left school at the minimum required by the state and were put to work in factories, much to the horror of social reformers, and they were not normally under parental supervision. Cotton mills and coal mines, industries with steam power and machinery, drew children into the adult labor market. In the cities poor children took to street selling. All the while, domestic service was one of the largest employers of child labor. At the beginning of the nineteenth century children were 10 percent of the labor force in the American Northeast; by 1832 they constituted 40 percent.

Childhood experience during the early modern period was thus affected in numerous ways by family structure. First, their primary caretakers differed according to the configuration of the household. In nuclear families, parents normally assumed responsibility for raising their children, while in extended and blended families other adults besides the parents might be involved in the lives of the children. That might include uncles, aunts, and grandparents in multi-generational extended families, while in a blended family, where one parent has remarried and constituted a new family, children might be raised by both a stepparent and a parent. In a nuclear household, children had economic and emotional relationships with their parents alone, while in extended and blended families the network of ties was potentially much larger. Domestic production in the home facilitated both parents assuming responsibility for child rearing. In the nineteenth century, when production moved outside the domestic hearth, mothers assumed more authority over children while fathers worked outside.

Another way household structure affected childhood was that the quality of a child's experience was directly affected by whether he or she was expected to contribute to the financial well-being of the household and whether he or she would inherit land. The latter determined whether or not marriage would be possible. Broader trends affected ability to marry as well. In periods of demographic rise and land shortage, marriage was delayed and restricted, while the opposite conditions encouraged early marriage. Although parents assumed responsibility for children's religious instruction, until the early twentieth century imparting vocational skills that would serve the means of production constituted the primary responsibility in child rearing.

The Twentieth Century

The parameters of household structure and childhood experience described above dramatically changed for the middle class during the first half of the twentieth century. The steady decline of the birthrate in Europe and North America from the nineteenth century was an important underpinning of this transformation. During the twentieth century highly reliable birth control methods and legalized abortion made the one- or two-child family the norm. During the 1990s, for example, the average number of births per household in Italy was only 1.2, and in Muslim communities of Europe such as Albania they averaged no more than 2.5. With fewer children, parents devoted more time to their proper care and upbringing. Other developments that contributed to the transformations in household structure and childhood experience included state intervention in child labor, rising real wages, compulsory school attendance, and new ideals of childhood and family life. Extended families also declined. In the nineteenth century, a grandparent often lived with an adult child and her children, and rates of co-residence in Europe actually increased. But in the 1920s older people began more consistently to live separately, a sign of quiet change in family structure.

Increasing prosperity had the effect of extending childhood beyond the minimum that had been experienced by working-class families. For the more fortunate, life shifted from the farm, domestic manufacture, factory, or streets to the home where parents nurtured and emotionally protected youngsters and socialized them for the wider world. While poorer children continued to receive minimum schooling so that they could help support their families, middle-class children increasingly withdrew from the labor force, enrolled in schools, and became the focus of parental investment both emotionally and financially. The age at which children became wage earners for their families was thus delayed to the late teens or beyond, and the period in which children remained living in the parental household was prolonged. Ethnicity and social class produced variation. Immigrants to North America, for example, brought their own customs. If they were poor, they depended more on their children to be wage earners rather than students. Socially mobile immigrants placed greater emphasis on schooling and higher education.

The transition from wage earner to schoolchild did not occur in a linear fashion. World War II, for example, disrupted all aspects of family life and the family economy due to separation, death, and financial hardship. Women entered the workforce while men were at war, and children were forced to mature more precipitously. However, from the 1950s, childhood in Europe and America became a defined stage of the life cycle which preceded formal schooling and vocational training and was clearly separate from the adult world of work. Age at marriage dropped, birthrates were exceptionally high compared to preceding periods, and divorce rates were low. There was a sharp gendered division of childrearing responsibilities, with mothers at home, ideally giving affection and emotional support, and fathers out in the work force supporting their families. There was a marked preference for residential independence. In North America families moved to suburbs where, with economic prosperity, they could endow their children with material goods and better education. Middle-class children had more leisure time and money than ever before, but not without some cost: by the 1990s the majority of parents worked outside the home to maintain consumption standards, leaving children in care facilities.

The late twentieth century, especially in North America, produced quantitative leaps in the structure of the modern family. Divorce was relatively rare until the twentieth century. However, from 1900 onward it spread in both Europe and North America, becoming available to all social groups by the end of the century. By the 1980s birthrates had fallen dramatically and divorce rates had doubled or tripled. Women obtained greater property rights as well as the possibility of alimony and child support, making divorce a realistic option. Moreover, women could more effectively choose whether or not to marry. The result was a rise in singleparent households and households headed by women. Financial independence, coupled with desires for self-fulfillment and gender equality, caused more women than ever to enter the labor force. These developments reduced the amount of time mothers could spend with their children. Fathers took greater responsibility in nurturing their children as mothers contributed to the family economy, but in cases where both parents worked, parents in the United States struggled to find child care arrangements while parents in Europe usually placed children in day care facilities.

The late twentieth century ushered in new household structures, with unwed parents, gay parents, and remarried parents who brought with them a series of step-relations. Divorce, premarital pregnancy, and single parenthood lost some social stigma. Children in divorced families generally experienced independence at an earlier age. Some developed close relationships with more than one adult, and they developed new relationships with each parent. However, their sense of stability could not help but be disrupted by the breakup of the nuclear family unit, parents dating other people, and in some instances one or two new families being formed as a result of their parents' new relationships. Blended families require considerable emotional if not financial adjustment. Children with same-sex parents also face complex social and emotional issues, including building perspective on gender roles as well as dealing with the community's reception of their nontraditional family structure. For the most part, in the early twenty-first century gay marriage has not been legally recognized in the United States and has been only marginally recognized in Europe. Children face larger challenges from society when their parents' relationship does not fit more familiar role models and is not supported by the institutional structures that uphold heterosexual marriage. On balance, same-sex parents are exceptionally committed to caring for and nurturing their children. The twenty-first century thus witnesses greater social complexities in household structure and family patterns that inevitably impact childhood, itself a structure continually in transition.

See also: Apprenticeship; Child Labor in the West; Divorce and Custody; Economics and Children in Western Societies; European Industrialization; Fertility Rates; Siblings.


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Joanne M. Ferraro