Recognizing the complicated mosaic of family patterns is important for fostering tolerance in light of global diversity. Yet, more attention is given to family structure than to the functions that families are expected to fulfill. Although what constitutes a family is cross-culturally variable, family functions are remarkably similar from culture to culture. Family life typically provides an environment for ensuring the vital needs of food and shelter, the generation and maintenance of wealth, and the provision of care and other nonmaterial resources. Family functions, regardless of family structure, elicit similar behaviors and practices worldwide (Georgas et al. 2001).
Societies around the world rely on the family to perform certain functions. The basic functions of the family are to: (1) regulate sexual access and activity; (2) provide an orderly context for procreation; (3) nurture and socialize children; (4) ensure economic stability; and (5) ascribe social status. Families further impart affection, care, and adaptive functions. In short, family is considered the supporter of coupling, the source of nurturance and the elemental education of children, the link to the market place, the place of remediation that takes the wayward back, and the hospice where infirm and dependent members seek solace.
Family functions are accomplished in a number of different ways. Typically, marriage or some variant is socially approved as the appropriate outlet for sexual behavior. Families teach and reiterate that certain persons and conditions are more apt for sexual intimacy and affection than others. For example, there are taboos against incest and at certain times against intercourse, such as during menstruation or pregnancy. The regulation of sexual behavior is concerned with more than coitus, and covers such behaviors as hugging, kissing, and touching, as well as attitudes and values. These attitudes and values influence family reactions and cultural prescriptions to such practices as premarital and extramarital relationships (Widmer et al. 1998).
Families are the most widely approved context for bearing and rearing children. Procreation within a family garners social approval for parenthood, and delineates legitimate progeny. Children born outside a conjugal family are often stigmatized. Socialization is perhaps the most important function because it teaches the rules and expectations for behavior both within the family as well as in the society outside. In this respect the family is a miniature social system, with parents as the chief promoters and enforcers of social order. The outcome of the socialization process within the family is critically important for the larger society, which is based on regulation and the shared willingness of citizens to conform to social norms. Typically, family provides the security and support best suited for teaching children life skills, cultural values, and social responsibility. It is doubtful whether children could develop into mentally, physically, and socially healthy human beings without family.
The provision and management of sufficient financial resources is an essential function in order to facilitate the efficacy of other family functions. Families influence the social placement and life chances of individuals. Children generally assume the legal, religious, and political status of their family, whereas other roles are achieved through marriage, occupation, and education.
While some people prefer doing things alone, most need others who care for them, show affection, share joys and sorrows, and give support in times of need. Affection and emotional support are extremely important. A family can recognize changes and reorganize to adapt to its environment more rapidly than other groups. This adaptive function enables families to adjust to new demands and cope with change. Family life can exhibit openness to novel ways of living and thinking that have not developed in other spheres (Boulding 1981; Vincent 1966). While other institutions—religious, educational, political, and economic—may assist with these functions, the primary responsibility is relegated to family.
SEE ALSO Children; Family; Family, Extended; Family, Nuclear; Family Structure; Family Values; Kinship; Marriage; Parent-Child Relationships; Parenting Styles; Sibling Relationships
Boulding, Elise. 1981. The Place of the Family in Times of Social Transition. Ottawa, ON: Vanier Institute of the Family.
Georgas, James, Kostas Mylonas, Tsabika Bafiti, et al. 2001. Functional Relationships in the Nuclear and Extended Family: A 16-Culture Study. International Journal of Psychology 36 (5): 289–300.
Vincent, Clark E. 1966. Familia Spongia: The Adaptive Function. Journal of Marriage and the Family 28 (1): 29–36.
Widmer, Eric, Judith Treas, and Robert Newcomb. 1998. Attitudes toward Nonmarital Sex in 24 Countries. Journal of Sex Research 35 (4): 349–358.
James J. Ponzetti Jr.