THE word family has never been adequately disciplined and defined. It has not been invested with precise meaning. In common usage it may mean many things: one’s self and ancestry; one’s wife and mother-in-law plus sisters, cousins, and aunts; all persons who live together under one roof, however they may be related; or simply parents and their children, however they may be domiciled. In the social sciences the word is equally protean: the varieties of kinship groups to which it can he applied are legion; it can be used to describe a household which includes persons who are not kin, as in the case of the Greek family which included slaves. Not all of these meanings given to the word are equally useful to those who sit together under the moon to discuss the founding of a family.

If domestic theory is to be helpful to those who need its help it must discuss as “the family” that entity which is created by marriage. Some writers hesitate to admit that a family exists unless there are children as well as husband and wife. But in following their lead, we should neglect the investigation of what may well be the most critical period of married life – the period of the honeymoon. The entity which is created by marriage obviously consists of the members, husband and wife: nor is there anything novel or startling in this observation. The hus[p.53]band-wife membership is necessarily primary, the parent-child membership secondary and derivative. So much at least is guaranteed by the physiology of reproduction.

Ethnologists, moreover, are prone to regard as families many kinds of groups which are more complex or extensive than the simple union of husband, wife, and children. There are families which include totem-ancestors and family gods, as well as several generations of living members. But even in such complex groups, the husband-wife-child unit exists as a component part of the larger organization. There are many families without totems, gods, or patriarchs, but none without a union of husband and wife, and the possibility of children. Therefore, if we apply the word “family” to those groups which consist of husband and wife, with children as possible additions, we bring before ourselves the facts which are at once the most universal as applied to the families of all times and places, and the most essential, as applied to the families of to-day.

It is strange indeed that the sociological writers, with all their flair for coining new words, have not thought to invent a word to designate precisely this group of parents and children, to the exclusion of all other persons. Kinship-group nomenclature is still in a chaotic state, like botanical nomenclature before Linnaeus. If the anthropologists had invented the necessary word we would welcome it, but we hesitate to burden the already overloaded vocabulary of the social sciences with a new term. It is preferable to use the ancient word, but to understand it in the restricted sense. Whenever there is danger of ambiguity we can use the expression “natural family” to make clear that we refer to parents and children alone, [p.54] and not to any broader group. The natural family is the group which most concerns us. We have only to imagine the situation of a courtship to see that this is true.

Here are two who are about to marry. What, in their understanding, is this “family” which their marriage will create? They remember that in sociology classes they learned that the family is a kinship group. Economics professors told them that it was a consuming household. Their thought rejects these classifications. The family which holds their imagination is the primal, atomic family of husband and wife. If they have relatives they will regard them as outside the intimacy at their domestic enterprise. They have little use for the genealogical conception of a family as a thing extending back through their ancestors – something which they must perpetuate. The family that interests them is not either of the families of which they are already a part; but rather the new family which they together are about to establish. This leads them to a very precise and narrow conception. The family is themselves in a new relationship. The fact that they, the two persons there in presence, are to be united in the new family is so important that it overwhelms all other facts and considerations. As Louis XIV said, “l’état, c’est moi,” so may they say, “the family – it is ourselves.”

The family as they see it, is the group created by a marriage: husband, wife, and possible children. This seems to them a natural and inevitable conception. Thus they lay down the limits of their own household and thus they envisage the families of their friends. It follows as a corollary from this conception that the same [p.55] individual can he at once a member of more than one family. The wife may be “daughter in her mother’s house and mistress in her own,” and have membership in two distinct families, each having some kind of claim upon her. The “relatives” who form the nebulous kinship groups of contemporary society are held together by just such ties of dual membership.

In many civilizations the dominant kinship group is one of these, aggregations of families – such as the Chinese household or the Roman familias. These complex groups are often antagonistic to the integrity and independence of the natural family. The Chinese bride, who must obey her mother-in-law while filling a subordinate rule in a great household, has less opportunity for real family life than an American wife who is full partner with her husband in a two-room apartment. The impending disintegration of the Chinese household institution may mean the actual emergence of the natural family in China. Chinese conservatives are already complaining of the threatened “disruption of the family,” while from our standpoint there is no disruption, but rather an emancipation of the family.

There are trends in our own society which seem similarly ambiguous. The tendency of young people to find their own mates is an evidence that another vestige of patriarchal organization is disappearing. It is sometimes cited to prove that domestic ties are being loosed, but it does not indicate any weakening of the natural family. Rather it indicates that the natural family is crowding out the kinship group organization. We will, therefore, inspect with caution all those generalizations which assume that the family is diminishing in importance in our civiliza[p.56]tion. It may well be that the groups which are diminishing in importance are these nonfamily kinship groups.

This conception of the family, like any other, has its border line cases. If the father dies and the widow continues to care for the orphans, is the household still a family? According to our definition it is not. It is indeed a kinship group, and in many ways its structure and nature may resemble that of a family, but it is not one in the strict meaning here given to the term family. And what of the polygamous family? It would seem that under conditions of polygamy or polyandry the family is created by the first marriage, and subsequent marriages increase its membership, just as births increase the membership of a monogamous family. So strict a definition may do violence to an emotional attachment to the word family, but it is necessary in order to bring to light useful general truths.

In the natural family, membership is fixed and definite. Marriage and birth designate certain individuals as members of the family. Some of these (the husband and wife) are primary in the sense that without them there is no family. If they separate the family is extinguished. Others (the children) are secondary. The family can exist without them, and they can leave it without destroying it. But no member of the family can transfer his membership to another person. All members are definitely designated; their family membership is a part of themselves.

The family is, therefore, a union of persons, not of capacities; it is a closed system; it is unlike other groups. Of some groups one can be at one time a member and later not, without affecting the continuity of the group [p.57] life. Societies and corporations maintain their identity from generation to generation, but the family cannot outlast the life of its primary members. The membership of husband and wife comes to an end only in the dissolution of the family. Consequently the family, within the span of a human life, must pass with its members from youth to old age.

If we compare the family with the groups which are the subject matter of other social studies this difference will strike us continually: that we can never say, “Such and such determinate individuals constitute this State or this society,” whereas we must always say, “Such and such determinate individuals constitute this family”. The State outlasts any of its subjects, and the continuity of society exceeds the length of human lives. But no family lasts longer than the determinate members who compose it. If citizens transfer their allegiance or hermits withdraw from all intercourse with their fellow man, the resulting situation is of minor importance in the study of State or society. Contrast with this the importance of divorce in the family situation. The difference between the fundamental problems of domestic theory and of other social studies can be summed up in these words: In the study of most groups we are called upon to explain a constant relationship between a succession of individuals; in the study of the family we are called upon to explain a variable relationship between the same individuals.

Family membership involves interaction among members; it is not an inert status but a matter of life and growth and change. When the members lose all touch with each other, the family ceases to exist. If a husband [p.58] and wife should separate after their wedding night, and their child be brought up in an orphan asylum, out of touch with its parents, there would he no family, although there would be legal marriage and biological parenthood. Just as real marriage has an aspect of duration, so real family membership requires interaction with other members. The members need not live together; it is only necessary that they should have some personal contact and that in their thoughts they should take each other into account. The mother can go abroad, the child to school, but such separation does not impair the existence of the family as long as personal interaction continues.

Here there is another element of the definition of the family: The family consists of the designated members provided personal interaction goes on between them. Here again, posed with all the terrible intensity of life, is the whole problem of personal conduct in marriage. Does this interaction of family members follow any known laws? Can it be understood and controlled? Can we apply to it the ordered manner of thought that we use in other great problems? Or must we content ourselves with rule-of-thumb catalogues of advice no better than the “ten commandments for wives” which a divorce court judge publishes, or the reiterated counselings of newspaper feature writers?

The Chinese have maintained for twenty-five centuries as a basic text of their literature a discourse upon the reciprocal rights and duties of the members of a household. Their household, of course, is not the same thing as a natural family. But the Confucian doctrine of domestic life is in its way systematic, comprehensive. Nevertheless we do not find in it the expression of any [p.59] inner law of family life. Like the divorce court judges, the feature writers, and the sociological field workers, Confucius was concerned with preventing the disruption of the household, with the pathology of family life, and not with the laws of health and growth. Lao-tse, the contemporary rival of Confucius, criticized the Confucian teaching on this very ground:

When Family ties begin to gall
Then come Piety and Parental Indulgence.

In the same way the Round Table on the Family at a recent meeting of the American Sociological Society echoes the criticism that the study of the family has been too much an investigation of failure and domestic disease; too little an inquiry into domestic success and well-being.

That successful family life is a definite accomplishment to be planned, striven for, and achieved by a continuous effort of art and will is an idea apparently less active in the minds of married people than the idea of possible separation. Courtship aside, most of our discussion of family life takes a negative tone. The discussion over the teacups is of the latest divorce. People are always referring, either in jest or in earnest, to a possible dissolution of the marriage. How often the heavy laugh that follows one of the witticisms about getting another mate has a taint of bitterness in it! There are women who talk and plan dreamily of what they would do if their home should break up, much as they previously talked and planned of what they would do when married. There are men who find the principal field for the exercise of their feeling of ambition in thinking of what they would [p.60] accomplish if they were not tied down by a wife and family. This pernicious habit of mind is due in part to such things as the tomcat theory of marriage, or the sex- monopoly obsession, but it is also due to the lack of a definite and positive ideal of family membership, capable of engaging our powers of workmanship.

Let us see clearly what is meant by successful family life, and we will turn our minds and energies to it. In order to know what the meaning of successful domestic life may be, we must know the laws of this interaction among members which is the essential of family existence. This interaction is, first of all, personal. The primary members find this character impressed upon their relationship by marriage itself. For if marriage is personal, so also is the family relationship, since it is but another side of the same thing. The secondary members, that is to say the children, cannot in infancy enter fully into this relationship. As they grow older they become free agents and establish a complete personal relationship with the other family members.

The assumption that the relationship of family members is essentially personal is the basic dogma of domestic theory. It has implications as wide as the range of human achievement. It means that spontaneity rather than conformity is the principle of success in marriage. It means that the natural family is the inevitable refuge of personality in a mechanized civilization.

In the light of this assumption we can weigh and compare different marriage institutions by observing whether they encourage or obstruct the interplay of personality among family members. In the family of an old Roman, or in the harem of an Oriental monarch, we should expect [p.61] to find much more importance attached to considerations of status, much less significance given to personality than in the family of to-day. But no matter how deeply the natural family may be submerged in a larger group, and no matter how comprehensively the duties of wife and husband may be catalogued and dictated by the community, there is always a margin of possibility for free personal interaction. Cato the Elder, the stern guardian of the strictest mores at old Rome, who denounced a Roman senator for embracing his wife in public, delighted to help in bathing his infant son, although this was by no means a duty of a paterfamilias. Certainly that civilization which gave us the stories of the Arabian Nights must have been perfectly familiar with the personal character of a family relationship. But the Occidental household of to-day is especially well-suited to be the locus of this personal relationship because it has cut loose from almost all functions save those of the natural family,

The significance of the natural family as a place for the play of personality is especially marked in these days when almost all other contacts are being dehumanized. Employers and employees are no longer personally acquainted with each other. The chain-store replaces the individual tradesmen who knew his customers by their first names; the corporation supplants the business which was previously run by a proprietor who felt personal responsibility for everything that went on. The machine crowds out the talent of the artisan until even the musicians go on strike against the radio, as the hand-weavers once broke up the power looms. The mechanical regimenting process goes so far that even the children’s play [p.62] is standardized, supervised, and controlled. The household alone holds out against this process. The very fact that it does hold out, that it refuses to be standardized and controlled and reduced to rule, is a fact which leads some critics to fear that the family is on the wrong track, that it is endangered and may disappear.

As regards some of these kinship groups which are called families this fear may be well founded. But as to the natural family there is no danger. Like marriage, it is anterior to society itself, and in one form or another will survive. It serves today a very real need, and is adapting itself to that need.