THE BLOG
11/21/2012 11:47 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Expanding Our Thinking About the Meaning of Adulthood and Family

First, let me say I am a fan of David Brooks' political commentary. But I can't always say this about his thinking on sociological issues. Take his recent op-ed, "The Age of Possibility" in The New York Times.

He writes that we're in an "age of possibility," meaning having entered into a time when people are "intolerant of any arrangement that might close off their personal options." He has concerns about those who "go through adulthood perpetually trying to keep their options open," and how this will affect society.

Specifically, who is he talking about? Those who don't choose the two-parent family structure -- namely, those who remain single and people who don't have children.

Brooks sees societies as in the midst of moving from being "oriented around the two-parent family" to "cafeteria societies with many options." These options include the many faces of family in today's society. Sociology researcher Brian Powell has researched how today's Americans define family. Results in his book, Counted Out, examine how men and women of different ages, races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds view what constitutes a "family."

In Powell's study, 100 percent of those surveyed thought a married heterosexual couple with kids was a family. No surprise. Eighty-three percent considered unmarried heterosexual couples with kids to be a family, and 64 percent would say that same-sex couples with kids are a family.

Ninety-two percent thought that a married, heterosexual couple without kids was a family. Forty percent considered unmarried heterosexual couples with no kids a family. And 33 percent thought same-sex couples without kids were a family.

Can singles be part of a family -- other than the family they came from, that is? Many singles who have a close-knit set of friends or a tight support structure of people they are not biologically related to (including parents and not) would say yes. To them, their family-centered life is less about blood or by-marriage relation, and more about life-long bonds of caring and support.

In the cafeteria of ways to be a "family," one does not have to be married or have children. But do people stay single or not have kids because they are perpetually trying to keep their options open in life?

Hardly. This reflects the belief that marrying and raising children is the path to adulthood. Related to this view is the belief that if you don't want to marry and have children you somehow don't truly become a full-fledged adult.

Thanks to pronatalist social and cultural conditioning, these beliefs have become so engrained that we think they are truths. But the truth is they are myths.

Just because people decide not to marry or have children does not automatically mean they have "maximum personal freedom to do what they want." It doesn't mean they aren't or won't become mature adults. There are many paths to adult maturity. It's reflected in things like finding vocation, attaining financial independence, and showing financial responsibility. It means having emotional intelligence, understanding the value of humility over hubris, and finding meaning in life beyond materialism.

It also means engaging in "commitments that transcend personal choice." Just because someone doesn't marry or have children doesn't mean they won't want this because it will cramp their style. Those who don't marry or have children deeply commit to their loved ones. They can contribute to their communities and our world, and do, sometimes more than those with children because parenthood is not the central focus of their lives.

Brooks seems reluctantly open to other "commitment devices" outside the two-parent model, but he's still stuck in outmoded thinking about adulthood and family. Traditional family is not the only way to "induce people to care about others, become active in their communities and devote themselves to the long-term future of their nation and their kind." People in all kinds of families want and do these things.

He suggests that "laws and attitudes should be biased toward family formation and fertility, including child tax credits, generous family leave policies." A long time ago we reached a population where we no longer need to provide incentives for people to have children, especially whenever they want whether they are ready or not. Promoting pronatalist laws and attitudes also continues to reinforce inequitable workplace policies.

Brooks believes that we are better off when we think beyond ourselves and engage in action that serves others. Indeed. We'll also be better off if we can move past outmoded thinking about family, and accept all of its forms that serve to bond us with those closest to us, and to our national and global family.

Laura Carroll is the author of The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World.