New 'Non-Traditional' American Families

ByKate Rice

Jan. 19, 2004 -- Gina Smith and Heidi Norton of Northamption, Mass., have two sons. Norton is their biological mother, and Smith adopted them.

They live in a community in which there are several gay- or lesbian-headed households, but when they travel, they meet families with no experience with gay families and sometimes encounter clumsy questions.

While they may not fit the mold of what many Americans consider a typical family, they are a contemporary American family. There is no single typical American family anymore.

"We're in the midst of a major change in the way families and marriage are organized," says Stephanie Coontz, a college professor and author of The Way We Never Were, American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and The Way We Really Are, Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families. "It's distressing, because all of the rules we grew up with no longer work and so we're having to learn new ways of thinking about families."

Smith and Norton, both 39, head a family that helps others rethink their ideas of what a family is. When they're asked about themselves and their sons, Avery, 7, and Quinn, 3, they assume that questions are well-intended and that the clumsiness simply means that the questioner doesn't have the vocabulary to deal with the situation.

"What's worked for us is stepping into the void and giving people some language to use," says Smith. "We would say things like, 'Avery is a very lucky boy who has two moms who love him,' so we just give them that language."

The 1950s Myth

Most children these days have buddies whose families are very different from their parents'. In fact, they quite possibly are growing up in such a family.

Most people still believe in the two-biological-married-parents-with-kids model, says Alexis Walker, editor of the National Council on Family Relations' Journal of Marriage and the Family (

"Family is both a belief and a practice," she says.

When she asks her students at Oregon State University, where she is a professor of human development and family sciences, if they think their family will be a mom, a dad, and children, most raise their hands.

But practice is far different. When she asks if they come from a family like that, only a few put their hands up.

Americans have to deal with the great myth of the 1950s, an era in which 60 percent of families consisted of a breadwinning father and a stay-at-home mother. But this model was actually a 15-year-aberration, fueled by post-World War II prosperity and a GI bill of unprecedented generosity that funded the education of returning war veterans, according to Coontz, a professor of family and history at Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash., and co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families ( The council's mission is to publicize the way the family is changing and to cover the consequences and implications of those changes.

Coontz says that for most of history, families have been co-provider families, with husband, wife and often children, all working to provide for the family.

"The fact is that families have always been diverse, and they've always been in flux and we've always been worried about it. As far back as colonial days people were complaining that the new generation of families was not like the old one," she says.

No Single Model

The 21st century child-rearing family can take any number of forms.

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 (, 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.

Your child has a friend whose family structure is one you're uncomfortable with. What do you do? Deal with it as though you were moving to a new neighborhood, suggests David Tseng, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Gays ( in Washington, D.C. Be polite, respectful and curious to learn about others in a healthy and constructive way. It's important to recognize that your unspoken response influences your children as much as your spoken one.

Sometimes, you may disapprove of the family structure of one of your children's classmates. Mark Merrill, president of Family First, a non-profit research and communications organization ( headquartered in Tampa, Fla., defines a family as any relationship of marriage, blood or adoption — but he limits that to heterosexuals. At the same time, he recognizes the reality of gay families. His response: "We are supposed to love everybody." And love, in Merrill's book, is not an emotion that leaps unsummoned from the heart. It is a decision to treat others, even those whose lifestyles you don't accept, with kindness and thoughtfulness and serve them in ways that are best for them.

Make a concerted effort within your own extended network of work colleagues and of friends to focus less on those who are like you and more on the diversity. "You want to be clear and deliberate about letting your kids know that this is America, this is the diversity of it and not to make a big deal of it," says James Morris, former president of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy ( and assistant professor of marriage and family at Texas Tech University in Fredricksburg.

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