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Two or more people related to each other by genetics, adoption, marriage, or in some interpretations, by mutual agreement.

Family is broadly defined as any two people who are related to each other through a genetic connection, adoption, marriage, or by mutual agreement. Family members share emotional and economic bonds. The term nuclear family is used to refer to family members who live together and share emotional, economic, and social responsibilities. The nuclear family is often comprised of a married couple who are parents to their biological or adopted children; all members live together in one household. This type of nuclear family is increasingly referred to by social scientists as an intact family, signifying that the family had not been through a divorce, separation, or death of a member.

In addition to the nuclear family, other complex and diverse combinations of individuals lead to what social

Traditional family sitting down to dinner at the turn of the twentieth century. (The Library of Congress. Reproduced by permission.)

scientists call blended or nontraditional families. When a family has experienced divorce or death leaving one parent to be primarily responsible for raising the children, they become a single-parent family. (The terms broken family and broken home are no longer widely used because of their negative connotations.)

Following the end of one marriage, one or both of the ex-spouses may enter a new marriage. Through this process of remarriage, stepfamilies are formed. The second spouse becomes a stepparent to the children from the first marriage. In the family formed by the second marriage, the children from each spouse's first marriage become step-siblings. Children born or adopted by the couple of the second marriage are half-siblings to the children from the first marriage, since they share one parent in common.

In some cases, a stepparent will legally adopt his or her spouse's children from a previous marriage. The biological father or mother must either be absent with no legal claim to custody, or must grant permission for the stepparent to adopt.

In situations where a single parent lives with someone outside of marriage, that person may be referred to as a co-parent. Co-parent is also the name given to the partner in a homosexual relationship who shares the household and parenting responsibilities with a child's legal adoptive or biological parent.

The home which was owned by the family prior to a divorce or separation is referred to as the family home in many state laws. In court settlements of divorce and child custody issues, the sale of the family home may be prohibited as long as the minor children are still living there with the custodial parent. The sale of the home may be permitted (or required to pay the noncustodial parent his or her share of its value) if the custodial parent moves or remarries, or when the children leave home to establish their own residences.

The term extended family traditionally meant the biological relatives of a nuclear family; i.e., the parents, sisters, and brothers of both members of a married couple. It was sometimes used to refer to the people living in the household beyond the parents and children. As family relationships and configurations have become more complex due to divorce and remarriage, extended family has come to refer to all the biological, adoptive, step-, and half-relatives.


In June 1997, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the number of single fathers with children under 18 grew from 400,000 in 1970 to 1.7 million in 1995. That same year, government data shows that 2.5 million children lived with just their fathers—48% of whom were divorced, 28% were never married, 18% were married but not living with their wives, and 5% were widowed.

For children living with their father only:

  • Median family income was $23, 155 (1994).
  • Percent that were classified as poor: 26%.
  • Six out of ten lived with at least one sibling.
  • Percent of fathers with high school diplomas: 76%.
  • Percent of fathers with a bachelor's degree or more: 12%.
  • Percent with a father who was working: 79%.
  • Five out of 10 lived in rental housing.

For children living with both parents:

  • Median family income was $46, 195 (1994).
  • Percent that were classified as poor: 11%.
  • More than eight out of ten lived with at least one sibling.
  • Percent with at least one parent with a high school diploma: 86%.
  • Percent with at least one parent with a bachelor's degree or more: 29%.
  • Percent with at least one parent working: 85%.
  • Less than 3 out of 10 lived in rental housing.

Government agencies and other statistics-gathering organizations use the term head of household to refer to the person who contributes more than half of the necessary support of the family members (other than the spouse); in common usage, the head of household is the person who provides primary financial support for the family.

Further Reading

Bernardes, Jon. Family Studies: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Elkind, David. Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Eshleman, J. Ross. The Family: An Introduction. 7th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1994.

Kephart, William M. and Davor Jedlicka. The Family, Society, and the Individual. 7th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Ohio Cooperative Extension Service. Changing Families, Challenges and Opportunities. Columbus, OH: Ohio Cooperative Extension Service: The Ohio State University, 1988. (Four sound cassettes, covering the subjects of latchkey families, single-parent families, strengthening step-families, and two-income families.)

Strong, Bryan and Christine DeVault. The Marriage and Family Experience. 4th ed. St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1989.

White, James M. Dynamics of Family Development: A Theoretical Perspective. New York: Guilford Press, 1991.

Further Information

Family Service Association of America (FSA), formerly the Family Welfare Association of America). 11600 West Lake Park Drive, Milwaukee, WI 53244, (414) 359–1040,(800) 221–3726.

Step Family Foundation (SFF). 333 West End Avenue, New York, NY 10023, (212) 877–3244 (Disseminates information on step families, provides counseling and training service, and publishes informational materials.)

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development