One effect of the shrinking modern family is that people today grow up not only with very few siblings, but also with few aunts, uncles, and cousins. The author of this article, Anthony Esolen, has 39 first cousins, twenty of whom grew up in his hometown of 5,000. I have a grand total of three first cousins, none of whom I grew up with, and only one whom I see every now and then. Large extended families like Dr. Esolen’s helped an earlier generation survive the Great Depression. If one household was down on its luck, there was an uncle who owned a business, or a cousin with a spare room, or an aunt with time to babysit. Chances were good that a sizeable number of family members lived close enough to be called in an emergency. (It’s easy to see how the decline of the extended family led to the growth of the welfare state.) If a relationship went sour, as they do even in the best of families, there were others who could mediate or fill the void. If a kid wasn’t very popular at school, he at least had cousins who made the experience less isolating than it might have been otherwise. Dr. Esolen explains:
“It should be no surprise to find kinship at the foundation of community life. For cousins, as I’ve said, provide you that straight passport into a community.
A cousin always has to choose you to play on his team, though he doesn’t necessarily have to choose you first; you can waltz into your cousin’s house and ask to use the bathroom or get a drink of orange juice; you can just show up unannounced and pester him into a game of rummy. Some kids find it hard to make friends, but a cousin has to like you even if he doesn’t like you, and he comes readymade.
My cousins were quite an assortment: a very pretty girl for me to have a crush on, a fellow Cardinals fan and memorizer of statistics, a shy bully, an inveterate coquette (whom my father didn’t like at all, but I did). Some were sharp and some were dumb; some were good-looking because they looked like our family, and some were homely because they looked like our family; one was adopted, and a couple you’d swear must have been but weren’t. Want diversity? Check out the first cousins of a big family. Nothing is less clannish than a clan.
Those cousins were a regular proving-grounds for flirting, fighting, and teasing: all indispensable for a happy marriage. Even the cooperation among cousins of the same sex — we boys built a fort in the middle of the woods, only to see it wrecked by some other clan — helps in the forging of those friendships which have built every civilization that has ever existed.”
Another unintended effect of small families is, I think, a strange kind of misogyny and misanthropy. Dr. Esolen points out that when families average two children per household, as is approximately the current rate, 45% of children grow up without a sibling of the opposite sex, and 70% grow up without siblings of one sex or the other. In earlier times cousins might have filled the gap, but today the only kind of closeness most young people have with the opposite sex is not the kind of closeness, shall we say, that is good for them. Boys today learn how to be boys, and how to relate to girls, primarily from strangers, without any of the insights derived from a close family life, and without any of the behavioral constraints necessary to family life. This can be compensated for by exceptionally attentive and creative parents, but alas, most parents are not very exceptional, nor should society expect them to be. As a result we should not be surprised that so many young people are confused about their sexual identity, frustrated at the incoherence and unpredictability of social expectations, and otherwise dysfunctional in the face of sex differences that earlier generations considered normal.
After four generations of sharply declining birthrates, the social safety net once known as the extended family no longer exists for most Americans. Today it is the nuclear family against the world, and even the nuclear family is crumbling. The only barrier between a failed or inadequate nuclear family and destitution is … The State. So, we are starting over. Let’s try to salvage what remains and rebuild, so that our grandchildren will be blessed with many aunts, uncles and cousins in the perilous times ahead.