Stephanie Coontz, in her article “The Way We Wish We Were,” argued that the “traditional family” many Americans desire to bring back never actually existed. She held that the search for a traditional family model leads to false generalizations about the past and denies the diversity of family life as it has existed and continues to exist today.
Coontz first related what some of her students write when asked about their perceptions regarding what the traditional American family is. Her students perceive that the traditional American family has the men and women remain “chaste until marriage, at which time they extricated themselves from competing obligations to kin and neighbors and committed themselves wholly to the marital relationship, experiencing an all-encompassing intimacy that our more crowded modern life seem to preclude” (Coontz 568).
However, Coontz held that these perceptions are “ahistorical amalgam of structures, values, and behaviors that never coexisted in the same time and place.”
Coontz explained that whenever people are made to choose a model of their supposed traditional American family, they are unwilling to accept the full characterization of their chosen model. The colonial family, for example, is admired for its discipline arising from strict patriarchal authority. However, Coontz (570) explained that colonial families fail to protect their children from external influences, citing only sexual knowledge as an example.
Others admire the Victorian family where men were considered to be the breadwinners, women provide gentle maternal guidance, and children were entitled to some time of play. The downside was that the Victorian family depended on other families—particularly the slaves and the lower class. Coontz refuted those who claim that the traditional American family comprised of an extended family.
She reported that America has had only up to 20 percent of its households are composed of extended families, to low a figure to reinforce the claim that extended families had been a norm in American society (Coontz 572).
She also explained that “contrary to the popular myth that industrialization destroyed ‘traditional’ extended families, this high point (of extended family existence) occurred between 1850 and 1885, during the most intensive period of early industrialization” (Coontz 572).
Coontz defended the family structure as it exists today in comparison to what other people held to be the “traditional” American family. She explained that it is not true how the American family life has lost touch with extended-kinship. She held that there is good evidence showing the ties between grandparents and grandchildren growing stronger.
Even during these times of living a fast-paces environment, majority of the adult Americans continue to view themselves as being close to their parents (90 percent) and grandparents (78 percent).
The rising age of those who marry or the frequency of divorce does not necessarily mean that marriage is becoming a less prominent institution. Studies show that there were more couples in the 1970s who view their marriage as “happy” than those in 1957 and there were women who believe that they are happier in their second marriage than in their first.
She held that the weakening emotional investment in the family that is apparent today reflects the balance that has to be given between family life and social ties.