What Makes a Family? Children, Say Many Americans

New research shows opinions on unmarried couples, same-sex pairs are changing.

ByABC News
September 15, 2010, 6:32 AM

Sept. 15, 2010 — -- There's the Addams family, the first family and the Partridge family. But what really counts as family? It seems that children have a lot to do with it.

Brian Powell, a sociology professor at Indiana University, and his team tackled Americans' evolving definition of family -- and their recognition of unmarried couples, gay and straight, as a family -- in a book-length study, "Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family," and separate 2010 survey. Between 2003 and 2010, his team conducted three surveys involving more than 2,300 people.

The new research was released today.

"What we find is that people are moving away from a traditional definition of family and they're moving towards a modern definition of family," said Powell. "That includes a much greater array of living arrangements. They're including a much broader group of people, broader combination of people as families."

Besides the debate over same-sex marriage, the definition of family affects income tax filings, adoption and foster care practices, employee benefits and other matters.

The Census Bureau's definition of "family" remains traditional: "A family is a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together."

Indeed, the "modern family" comes in many combinations -- and so do Americans, according to the team's research.

The book's authors identified three clusters of Americans: "exclusionists" who hold onto a more narrow definition of family; "moderates" who are willing to count same-sex couples as family if children are involved; and "inclusionists" who have a very broad definition of family.

In 2010, almost everyone -- 99.8 percent -- agreed that a husband, wife and kids count as a family. Ninety-two percent said that a husband and wife without the kids made a family.

"Children provide this, quote, 'guarantee' that move you to family status," Powell said. "Having children signals something. It signals that there really is a commitment and a sense of responsibility in a family."