On Words: What Makes a ‘Family’? Barney the Purple Dinosaur May Have the Answer

August 22, 2019 By Robert Emery, ree@virginia.edu Robert Emery, ree@virginia.edu

Editor’s note: Welcome to the second installment of a new, occasional series in which University of Virginia faculty members riff on evocative words. Today’s essay comes to you from Robert Emery, a psychology professor and noted expert on family dynamics. Subscribe to the series below!


How we define “family” can be deeply personal. It also can be deeply political, religious and cultural.

But let’s not worry about controversy yet. For now, just ponder this question: Who is in your family? That simple question can be difficult to answer, even for me – and I’m considered an expert on families.

I would readily include my wife and five children in my family. But only one of my kids still lives at home. Sorry, you other four. The U.S. Census Bureau says you aren’t family! “A family consists of a householder and one or more other people living in the same household who are related to the householder by birth, marriage or adoption.”

Kind of makes you feel warm and fuzzy all over, doesn’t it? You census people sure have a way with words!

(Only 65% of U.S. households were family households in 2018, down from 87% in 1960.)

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So, good luck grown-up kids. The Census Bureau says you’re on your own. (Now stop asking for money!) Yet, three of you are still covered on our health insurance, as per Obamacare rules. They make you a part of our family until you turn 26.

Geez. The U.S. government seems confused. Shocking, I know.

Well, sorry, Uncle Sam. I’m not kicking my children out of my family, no matter how old they are or what rules you make. But if I include my 37-year-old daughter, does that mean her husband and their three children, my grandchildren, are a part of my family, too? They didn’t make the crucial Christmas card family photo cut. Then again, neither did my 25-year-old unmarried daughter who’s living in Spain and was unavailable for the family photo shoot.

And what about my oldest daughter’s mother, my ex? Our daughter named her first-born “Emery,” my surname and one her mom retained. I’m not exactly objective, but that embrace of our family name tells me my daughter thinks of the three of us as family.

Hey census people! You say 31% of children live in single-parent families, up from 12% in 1960. But almost all of those kids have two, living biological parents. When are you going to start counting joint custody? Yup. The census has long ignored this contemporary family reality.

Families can and do extend beyond households, a fact that complicates counting for demographers, but must be counted emotionally. In my research on divorce mediation, my practice as a clinical psychologist and in my writing, I always encourage parting parents to still treat each other like family, despite their past and their pain. I urge parents to act like parents – so their kids can be just kids, not forever children of divorce. The title of my most recent book for parents encapsulates the message: “Two Homes, One Childhood: A Parenting Plan to Last a Lifetime.”

Of course, there are many more variations on family. So-called two-parent families include many second marriages, half- and unrelated siblings. Plus, 40% of children in the U.S. are born outside of marriage today, versus 5% in 1960, many to cohabiting couples.

And what about same-sex families? In 2013, I had a graduate student whose out-of-state, same-sex marriage was not recognized in Virginia. When she went into labor, she didn’t race to UVA Hospital. She and her wife raced to Washington, D.C., where, unlike Virginia, two mothers could be listed on a birth certificate. I can only imagine what that was like. Getting my wife to the local hospital was stressful enough for me!

Thanks to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, same-sex marriage now is legal and recognized throughout the United States. Still, gay couples couldn’t adopt in many states until a 2017 Supreme Court ruling eliminated that restriction. Today, same-sex couples still can’t adopt internationally from many countries.

Here’s another question. How small can a family be? My former Department of Psychology colleague, Bella DePaulo, argues that remaining single often is a healthy and logical choice. She wants more recognition of single-person families.

Then there are true single-parent families, where an unpartnered woman becomes pregnant via sperm donor or a person adopts as a single parent. Yet, new reproductive technologies, and open adoptions, create even more family variety. Sperm donors or surrogate mothers might be friends or relatives, and they sometimes maintain relationships with their offspring. And most birth parents no longer remain anonymous following adoption. So, a family might be comprised of one person, or maybe of one child and three (or more) parents!

Families also may be extended in more traditional ways. I grew up in an Italian-American family. My mother’s maiden name was Girardi. We always said we spelled “Family” with a capital “F,” a formalization that included four nuclear families. My father and two uncles all worked in the same beer and liquor wholesaling business. My grandfather, a bootlegger turned legit, founded the company following Prohibition.

My grandfather died before I was born, but his wife, my Nana, became the family matriarch. We gathered at her house every Sunday after church, and lived together during the summers at her “camp,” a small cottage on a local pond. Many other relatives lived in the same, small Massachusetts town. They were “lower-case” family.

My one surviving sister and I recently lamented about how tiny our family has become. And she has four children and seven grandchildren, to my five and three!

I love learning about ethnic traditions in family life, and rarely rein in my curiosity when asking people about their family and ethnic background. Of course, there is a huge variation within as well as between cultures. (Bella DePaulo, the afore-mentioned single-person family advocate, is Italian-American too.) Still, I think it’s important, without stereotyping, to recognize common ethnic and cultural influences in family life.

My psychology department colleague, Melvin Wilson, for example, has long noted the importance of grandparents in African American families. Compared to whites, black grandparents are about three times more likely to reside with grandchildren under the age of 18. American Indian, Hispanic and Asian grandparents also have high rates of co-residency with grandchildren.

Here is a fact I learned from an undergraduate in a seminar I occasionally teach called “Sex, Love, Children, Family.” This student, whose parent immigrated from Colombia when she was a child, proudly taught me that Latin-American families are more likely than others to embrace the American dream. A 2018 Pew survey found, for example, that 77% of Hispanics agreed that you can get ahead with hard work. Only 62% of the rest of the population endorsed the same view. Incidentally, this young woman is living the American dream herself. She is “hot property” in the grad school market as I write this. She has been accepted into several very competitive, high-prestige clinical psychology programs.

So, bottom line, how do I define family? When I get down to it, I prefer Barney’s definition over the Census Bureau’s. (Yes, Barney, the purple dinosaur. He annoyed me too, but c’mon. He had a message.) “A family is people and a family is love, that’s a family. They come in all different sizes and different kinds. But mine’s just right for me.”

And while that definition of family does make me feel warm and fuzzy, I am sure some readers will object to “just right for me.” After all, there are dysfunctional families. And many people are estranged from their family. Still, even if your idea of family is only aspirational, it’s a healthy aspiration. So, I’ll stick with warm and fuzzy.

Editor’s note: We hope you enjoyed this. Please share “On Words” with your friends and family and get ready for forthcoming expert musings on the words “enslaved,” “rock ’n’ roll,” and “disruption.” To suggest a word or faculty member, just write to me, Jane Kelly.

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