GUEST BLOG: The Modern Family

Talking families and thinking about the different family structures in which children are raised in usually touches heart strings for most people. Thinking and embracing that which might be outside your own world view can certainly be daunting.

Diversity has always been one of the strengths of South Africa, and when it comes to the diversity within our family structures, we certainly have a lot to embrace. A recent study by the SA Institute of Race Relations (2013) confirms that living arrangements for South African children are as diverse as it gets elsewhere in the world. Only 33% of children in South Africa live with both their parents. Just over 39% of children live with their mothers only, and about 4% live just with their fathers. Eight percent of children live with their grandparents, great aunts or uncles, but without their own parents. Child-headed households, where the oldest resident is younger than 18 years old, accommodate 0.5% of children. The modern family certainly comes in all shapes and sizes.

Modern Family

Many societal factors are impacting on how family structures develop such as divorce, separation, HIV/AIDS, migrant workers, people deliberately choosing to have child-free households, and so forth. Within this myriad of family forms, emerges children raised by same-gender parents, whether through previous marriages, or via adoption, surrogacy or assisted reproductive technologies.

The traditional nuclear family (which is widely accepted to mean a legally married, two-parent, heterosexual couple) is typically the norm against which all other kinds of couple or family arrangements are measured and judged. Another fact to consider however, is that humans have spent most of the past 150 000 years living in multigenerational, multifamily groups.

Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D Perry (2010) in their book, Born for Love, state that humans have grouped together in relatively small tribes where approximately four family members took care of a single child. Extended kin were all involved in the upbringing and care of infants and children, characterised by rich human interactions. The presence of a loving and nurturing caregiver is paramount for individuals to develop their capacity for love, empathy, and so forth – all the key ingredients for positive relationships and well-being.

When we look at the reality of South Africa’s households, we need to broaden our perspective and be creative about the way we as humans develop our relationships; and to rest at ease that children do not necessarily need a nuclear family to learn to thrive and flourish.


Written by: Dr. Carien Lubbe-DeBeer, University of Pretoria