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A New Definition of Family

If we are going to effectively work with and understand kids today, we have to understand what a family is. Family, after all, is a defining characteristic for all us - some for the better and some for the worse. It seems like an...

A New Definition of Family

If we are going to effectively work with and understand kids today, we have to understand what a family is. Family, after all, is a defining characteristic for all us – some for the better and some for the worse. It seems like an easy thing – to define the word family. It seems easy, that is, until you try to do it. Seriously though, take five minutes away from reading the rest of this article and write down your own definition of the word “family.” It is just one word after all!

One recent report on the status family concluded the following:

“Trying to identify only one definition of the family is like trying to cheat death: it doesn’t work and you end up feeling foolish for trying.”

Of course, I love a good challenge, so I thought I would give it a try.

Traditional Definitions of Family

Before we come up with our own definition of family, let’s look at some of the more traditional definitions of family and see where they fall short.

The government must know what family is, right? The U.S. Census Bureau defines family as:

“A family consists of two or more people, one of whom is the householder, related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing in the same housing unit. A household consists of all people who occupy a housing unit regardless of relationship. A household may consist of a person living alone or multiple unrelated individuals or families living together.”

At first blush, this doesn’t seem too bad, but consider that a divorced father (or mother) not living with a child is not considered family under this definition.

If we’re talking about definitions, then we probably ought to go find a good dictionary. So, let’s look at everyone’s favorite digital dictionary – Dictionary.com. It defines family as:

“a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children, considered as a group, whether dwelling together or not: the traditional family.”

That solves the problem of not living together, but by this definition kids are necessary to make a family. There are plenty of married couples out there without kids who would probably object to this particular definition.

How about Wikipedia? Surely wikipedia has a good definition. It is a little bit better:

“In human context, a family (from Latin: familia) is a group of people affiliated by consanguinity (by recognized birth), affinity (by marriage), or co-residence/shared consumption.”

That’s better, and this definition gets extra points for using the word consanguinity. In fact, of all the definitions I’ve seen, this one probably comes closest to a “good” definition of family. But, what does this one mean for step-parents who help to raise kids but are no longer married to the child’s parents? Furthermore, does this make college roommates who live in the same place and share expenses family?

Where else shall we turn? The legal system? Unfortunately, the legal system has no clear or consistent definition of family. Indeed, the definition of family in any given case seems to be based primarily on the circumstances of that case and the judge’s opinion.

How about the Bible? Clearly the Bible has things to say about family. Frankly, you would be hard pressed to find a “good” biblical picture of family in the Bible. Consider the following:

  • Abraham, Sarah and Hagar
  • Lot’s family
  • Isaac’s family (Jacob and Esau)
  • Jacob, Rachel and Leah
  • David, Bathseba, Absalom
  • Solomon’s Wives
  • Hosea and His Wife

Even our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came from a complex family with a step-dad and half siblings.

The Bible is clear on some of the purposes of family like companionship, procreation, nurture, training, discipleship, and protection, but both the Old and New Testament words for family indicate a larger unit than we picture when we think about family. Those words suppose the inclusion of servants, slaves and/or anyone else living in the same household.

So, how about the church? With the increasing popularity of Family MInistry, surely the church has a clear and concise definition of family, right? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding NO. Many, likely most, churches still operate in a way that indicates that their view of family is something akin to the “Leave It To Beaver” or “Ozzie and Harriet” view of the traditional family. Any other ministry to families like Divorce Care or Single Parent Ministry is a form of “care ministry.”

Family Has Changed

Even though most of our churches still view families in a traditional and outdated sense, the fact of the matter is that families have changed. Consider the following limited listing of examples:

  • The United States leads the world in divorce rates.
  • Over 1 million children per year have witnessed the divorce of their parents every year since 1972.
  • in the early 2000’s 46% of children had lived with their parents in a cohabiting situation. That number has clearly increased in the last fourteen years.
  • 32.25% of all families were single parent families in 2012
  • Half of all children will spend time in a single-parent home.
  • Almost 55% of all births to women under the age of 30 are to single mothers.
  • By adolescence (between the ages of 12 and 16), fewer than half of children living with separated, divorced, or remarried mothers had seen their fathers at all in more than a year.
  • 1/3 of children will live in a stepparent family by age 18, and 50% will have a stepparentat some point in their life.
  • In a full sample of 1,870 adolescents aged 15-19, there were 187 different family structure trajectories representing children’s cumulative family structure experiences over the course of childhood.
  • The number of children living with only their grandparent(s) increased 170% from 1970 to 2010.
  • 54.2% of children WILL NOT reach age 17 with both of their biologically parents having been married to one another from before or shortly after their birth.

Clearly families are changing and we need to come up with a definition which accurately reflects the nature of today’s families not an image of how families used to be.

Developing An Accurate Definition of Family

Different Types of Families

Before we can adequately define the word family, we must first acknowledge that the word is broad enough that it actually encompasses a number of different “types” of families for each person. Those include:

  • Primary Family
  • Family of Origin (loosely “the family we grew up in”)
  • Extended Family (aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. who are not primary care givers)
  • Pseudo Family (friends, etc. who are “like family”)
  • Faith Family (our brothers and sister in Christ)

Short of a lengthy thesis, it is nearly impossible to come up with one definition that clearly encompasses all of these different “types” of families. So, our purpose here is to come up with a definition for the “Primary Family.”

Components of a Comprehensive Definition of Family

In order to develop a good definition of family, we need to consider the necessary components of a comprehensive definition of the word. These include:

1. Inclusiveness

Our definition must be broad enough to include various constructs of family and also must include estranged family members (wayward children, etc.)

2. Exclusiveness

Our definition must be restrictive enough that there is some end to the definition, and it must include some sort of connection beyond just mere affinity. A definition which is too broad is no definition at all

3. Positional (Depends on who’s family you are talking about)
  • The key point is that a person’s family is based on their own individual perspective and may include people who wouldn’t consider one another family. For example, a child whose parents were divorced and remarried would include both birth parents and their new spouses in that person’s definition of family. At the same time, the new step-dad would include the biological mother (his wife) in his definition of family but likely exclude the ex-husband and his new wife.
4. Transient (it changes over time)

People may come and go from your family. Inclusion of individuals probably depends on closeness.

5. Structural (Some sort of bond)

Our definition needs a binding agent whether that be biological, legal (or pseudo-legal), emotional or based on location.

6. Functional

Our definition must acknowledge that family provides (or is meant to provide) certain basic functions.

7. Specific

With all of the criteria listed above, it is clear that a general definition will not suffice. Our definition needs to be precise enough to accurately define what a family is or it will ultimately be useless.

8. Recognizes the biblical purpose and position of the family

We could write our definition without reference to God or the Bible, but it is clear that family was designed for a purpose, and to ignore that fact would give us incomplete definition.

A New Working Definition of Family

So, here’s what I came up with that meets all eight criteria:

PRIMARY FAMILY: The family is a foundational institution of society ordained by God. It consists of a social unit of two or more people (often including more than one generation) bound to one another by biological ties, legal ties or a combination of location, relational and emotional ties who share life together and provide some or all of the primary functions of family including, but not limited to, the discipleship, education, and socialization of children; economic cooperation and interrelatedness; commitment to one another; regulation of sexual activity and procreation; providing emotional security and support; and sharing common experiences, values and traditions. Family can only be defined from the perspective of one individual and the members of one’s family can, and often do, change with the passing of time. A person’s primary family will change depending on what stage of life they are in (e.g., a person’s primary family as a child will likely become their family of origin as an adult and will likely be replaced by a new primary family as they marry and have kids).

And here’s the slightly shorter (though still long) version of the same definition:

PRIMARY FAMILY: The family is a foundational institution of society ordained by God. It consists of a social unit of two or more people (often including more than one generation) bound to one another by biological ties, legal ties or a combination of location, relational and emotional ties who share life together and provide some or all of the primary functions of family. Family can only be defined from the perspective of one individual and the members of one’s family can, and often do, change with the passing of time.

Alternatively, I am fan of the definition proposed by Ogden Nash:

A family is a unit composed not only of children, but of men, women, an occasional animal, and the common cold.

– Ogden Nash

So, what do you think? What is your definition of family? How would you change the definition proposed above? I would love to hear your input.

Updated from original article written in September 2014.

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