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There are many external factors that influence the psyche of the average American, including education and environment, but the most important is the institution of family. Historically, the image of family has been at the center of humanity, defining who we are and how we behave. In the United States, familial structure has evolved over time, influenced by social, cultural and political circumstances and distinct historical moments, shifts that are met with changes in perspective. Sometimes, when there are modifications to something so integral to our existence, we are overwhelmed by fear, but the recent overhaul of the classic “American family” is for the best. I’d like to start by telling you an abbreviated, and fiercely contested, history of the American family.

The core values of the American household have changed as society’s needs, technology and capabilities progressed. Grace Argo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, is currently teaching the course “The Writing of History,” with a focus on “family secrets,” and told me that “what many people consider ‘traditional’ American values today are not, in fact, traditional.” We tend to equate the ideal, “nuclear” American family with a working husband, a stay-at-home wife, two-and-a-half kids and a white picket fence around a cozy suburban home, but this has not always been the case. The idea of the family is always evolving: changes in policy and the social status quo have affected how we view the role of women and children within familial structures, as the two have become more independent and stable in terms of income and social position. War, the ups and downs of the economy, and social movements have historically changed our perspective on what makes a family. 

“The irony, of course, is that many things people call ‘traditional’ American family values are not really traditional, and many values that are in fact traditional within the American context have had contested histories,” Argo said, citing the double standard that certain family standards pose to people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Both same-sex and interracial couples have been denied their right to the coveted ‘family’ label because they have been barred from marriage and adoption until only within the last 50 years. 

Argo told me that the “digital age is galvanizing many Americans to redefine ‘family values’ in important ways,” instituting a new “social pressure” to have the perfect parenting techniques and “well-trained” children. Social media changes how we view our relationships with other people and significantly impacts familial relationships — too much activity on social media by parents has proven to be negative for familial stability.

Stronger political polarization has also impacted what are considered “traditional family values.” American conservatives consider family values to be essential to their politics and defend its stereotypical structure, but in practice, their policy preferences clash with this purported commitment. In favor of the separation of families at the border and oftentimes ignoring their own family values, conservative politicians tout their admiration for the sanctity of family, but only when it concerns their own interests. Family values are being politicized, and in turn, their power over the American public is diminishing — individuals don’t want the inner workings of their familial structure being divided on partisan terms. 

The familial structures, and therefore struggles, of politicians are widely exposed to the general public. Vocal in favor of their traditional values, conservatives like Donald Trump and Herschel Walker fail to follow their own advice — their families are relatively full of scandal and blatant hypocrisy. In attempts to defend their perspectives, they criticize the families of liberal politicians, initiating a confusing conversation around the partisan nature of the American family. 

Although frightening to the ingrained culture of America, the changes to traditional family values are in many ways positive. The American people are always changing, being influenced by various new technological developments, new political strifes and new social scenarios, so evolution is necessary, even that of the most intrinsic values. The historical values assigned to the traditional American family are in many ways damaging, confining certain individuals to ways of life that are now considered to be antiquated — women are in the workforce, men aren’t the sole breadwinners, children are being held to higher standards in terms of their education and any couple can marry and have families of their own. Breaking away from the barriers of the traditional American family has been essential to both our national and personal development.

We need change, and modifying how we view the traditional American family is an important step toward progressive growth. The digital age has created a world in which non-traditional family structures are effectively broadcasted online, and partisan divisions have marred the morals behind these conventional values. The people that fear the change to the traditional family structure are worried that it will “disrupt what they perceive to be the ‘natural,’ ‘correct’ and, synonymously, ‘American’ social order,” Argo said — we can’t allow fear to keep us from embracing all families, so the overhaul of what we consider to be “traditional” is for the best of our societal maturation. The slow expiration of the “authentic” American family is good for all of us, allowing us to advance beyond prejudicial historical precedent and become a more open and accepting society.

Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at lindssp@umich.edu