What is a Family?

by Bernard Gavzer


The definition of family in America has been changing radically in the last few decades. For one thing, the traditional family - two parents, a father who works and a mother who raises her two or three children at home - is waning. At the same time, one-parent families are becoming more common.

We also see new types of domestic arrangements. Some people say they are families, while others argue that they are not. Who is right? What is a "family" anyway? And what values should a family, any family, strive for?

Now matter how they are composed, strong families, however, have certain things in common: They are built out of two powerful commitments, say the experts. These are to nurture and protect the young while preparing them to join society; and to protect and support the well-being of the elderly.

These two goals are prized among people who differ in race, religion, wealth, heritage and culture, and they are shared by people whose lifestyles are both traditional and nontraditional, says Thomas F. Coleman, Director of the nonprofit Spectrum Institute's Family Diversity Project in Los Angeles.

Don Cone, 71, and his wife Doris, 70, of Baywood Park, Calif., typify a traditional family arrangement. They have been married for 50 years. Two of their children are married and have children of their own. Don Cone sacrificed a possible career as a corporate executive to build a strong family.

"It was clear in my company that if you were going to get ahead, you have to give your life to the company." says Cone, who was an engineer engaged in developing color TV. "But I put the church, my work with the Boy Scouts and my family ahead of everything else."

Patricia Conway, 41, a teacher in Portland, Ore., and James Brunkow, 42, a chimney sweep, are not married. But they've been together for 11 years and have four children. Their family is the center of their life. Their huge kitchen table is crowded with children doing homework or with everyone diving into huge meals. The family spends a lot of time together.

Yet Conway and Brunkow are not legally recognized as a family. The U.S. Census Bureau defines a "family" as those related by blood, marriage or adoption. Failing to meet that criteria, unwed couples can run into complications, ranging from getting health insurance to trying to file joint income-tax returns.

"Being married is not the issue," says Brunkow. "The commitment I make to Patricia and the kids is one I make freely. We are choosing to live in this fashion. Because we do it doesn't mean that we should be denied any of the benefits that normally exist between people who are married."

Dmitri Belser, 34, and Tom White, 37, who are homosexuals, call themselves a family too. Though the pair have taken upon themselves the responsibilities of a marriage and family, they also are unable to get the benefits of one, because the law does not recognize such unions as "marriages."

“We are a family,” insists Belser. "We have two sons, Elliott, 7, and Sabastian, 3. The adoption decree names us both as parents, acknowledging the relationship. But the state won't recognize us as a couple even though everything we have is held in common."

For some people, these nontraditional arrangements are not real families. But Linda Walker, a single mother who is raising her four young children and two nieces, wants to know how anyone could say they are not a family.

By Bernard Gavzer, Parade Magazine

ESL 150 – Writing Topic

As you have read in the article “What is a Family?” by Bernard Gavzer, there are nontraditional human groupings that can be considered a “family.” Nonetheless, people in these nontraditional “families” cannot enjoy some of the same benefits that traditional families enjoy, such as getting health insurance and lower income taxes.


Do you think modern governments should expand their legal definition of a “family” to include these nontraditional groups? Why or why not? Give reasons for your opinion. Use information from the reading, as well as examples and details from your own experiences.

  • You may write in pencil, but ink is preferred.
  • Double space (skip lines)!
  • Leave a margin on each side of each page.
  • Write on one side of the page only.

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