New 'Non-Traditional' American Families

There's the 1950s model, one that is shrinking in number. An exact count is hard to come up with, but experts believe it's probably under 25 percent. Statistics show that today the majority of couples both earn income.

Demographers estimate that only 50 percent of children will spend their entire childhood in a two-parent, married couple biological family, according to Coontz.

Increasingly common are blended families, couples with children from previous marriages as well as the current marriage. Then there are single parents, families with adopted children, gay families with adopted children or biological children, foster families, grandparents raising grandchildren, and so on.

Absent a single, cookie-cutter family model, the best definition of a healthy family is one that provides or performs certain core functions. These include basics such as food, shelter and economic support, according to Liz Gray, associate professor and family therapist in human development and family sciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

But a family does much more, providing love and affection, a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging. Families also provide a worldview or a spiritual belief that can help make sense of the world, as well as rules and boundaries for appropriate behavior and skills for dealing with the world.

More than a decade ago, Gray co-authored Nontraditional Families: A Guide For Parents (http://www.cyfernet.org/parent/nontradfam.html), which remains a highly useful piece for parents today. Looking back, Grey says she would never use the term "nontraditional," because today, those "nontraditional" families have become the norm.

Like any parents, Smith and Norton love to talk about how their family came to be, says Smith, and often handle curiosity by simply telling the story. Children had been part of each woman's life plan even before they met and fell in love 13 years ago, so it was only natural that they have children together. Smith says most people are accepting of their contemporary family.

"If you present yourself as comfortable with who you are as family, they'll take their cues from you," she says. She finds that the fact that she and Norton have such respect for themselves that others approach them and their sons with that same respect.

Tips: How to Deal

If you encounter a family that might once have been called nontraditional but aren't sure how to handle it, experts recommend first that you show respect no matter the others' family structure. Your children will closely follow your actions and their responses will mirror yours, as well.

Some more of the experts' recommendations are below.

Look at your own family, your brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors. Odds are, you'll see a variety of family structures. That will give you an idea of what your children are encountering in school, and give you a way to discuss the issues with them.

Draw maps of families and extended families to help children understand family structure. Talk about it. Let children draw their own maps or pictures of families, then listen to what they have to say about it.

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