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There Never Was an Ideal Family

By Janet Jacobsen

The ideal family of yesteryear never really existed, says Edward Kain, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Cornell University.

In 1900, by the age of 15 one in four children had lost one or both parents to death, while today only one in 20 must deal with the death of a parent.

And despite the appearances from the divorce rate, more marriages today actually last longer. In 1900, in two-thirds of marriages, one spouse had died before the 40th wedding anniversary, and including the divorce rate, seven in ten marriages didn’t last 40 years. By 1976, combining both the divorce rate and the death rate, the figure was only six out of ten that didn’t last.

Nor was the happy extended family a fact. In 1900 nearly two out of three families had at least one child die before the age of 15. And grandparents were relatively rare; only one-quarter of newborn children had all four grandparents alive, and by age 15, only two in 100 still had four grandparents. Today two-thirds of children born have four living grandparents, and over half at age 15 still have three grandparents alive.

Says Kalin, "Families may be fragmenting today, but few of us would want to return to the past. Death was all too common a visitor among the living."