The American society has witnessed changes in the institution of marriage and a reconsideration of its stand on children. Social change has produced situations that are beyond the reach of established norms. As such, people can no longer depend on shared understandings on how to act. Old rules governing the conduct of people in the society have been broken down. Changes in social norms and institutions are affecting marriage and children (Hughes & Kroeber, 2011). Marriage is no longer given the importanceit used to be given, neither are children. The decline in marriage among Americans has been attributed to changes in social norms that have taken away marital values. In addition, the decline in marriage is also attributed to decline in work. This essay examines the changes in the social norms and institutions on marriage and children in America during the last 40-50 years.
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As mentioned earlier, the changing norms in the American society have led to changes in the American views concerning marriage. Marriage is no longer viewed as an institution of procreation and child rearing as it used to be several decades ago. This has led to a number of trends such as a high number of children who are born outside the conventional marriage setting as well as the rise of single-parent families. Other trends in family life that have arisen include cohabitation and same-sex marriages. According to the U.S. Center for Health Statistics (2003), one out of every three children in America is born out of wedlock. This implies that marriage is no longer considered the virtually universal setting for bringing up a child in America as it was five decades ago. On the other hand, cohabitation has become common, particularly among the low-income population (Cherlin, 2004).
Structurally, cohabitation is like a step family, but it does not entail marriage. Cohabiting in the past has been used as a testing ground for marriage, but it is regarded as an alternative to marriage. This trend has led to the society conforming to a couple living together without intentions of marrying. This has then led to children being born out of wedlock. Cohabitation has even been institutionalized. In America, cohabiting couples are now being granted rights and responsibilities of married couples by states or municipalities (Smock & Gupta, 2002). A more recent change in the marriage institution has been the riseof same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage became a public issue in 1993 (Cherlin, 2004). Since then, the issue has been debated raising different sentiments from various quarters. However, lesbian and gay couples are now not welcome as was the case in the past. This move has led to changes in views concerning the family institution, because such unions defy the norms and society's expectations from a married couple.
Same-sex duos who desire to raise children have to opt for adoption or donor insemination. Such moves have altered society’s norms on childbearing and upbringing (Cherlin, 2004). Conventionally, a family is composed of a husband, wife, and children. However, changes in social norms as well as in marriage and family institution have led to the rise of single-parent families. One of the factors to be blamed for the decline of marriage is economic fortunes. The decrease in employment opportunities in the last four decades among low and middle-income men has led to a decline in chances of getting married. Forty years ago, 91 percent of middle-income earners were married (Greenstone & Looney, 2012). Today, this percentage has decreased to 64 percent owing to a decrease in earnings.
On the contrary, the American woman has become more economically empowered than she was four or five decades ago. This has made them gain more economic control over their lives (Greenstone & Looney, 2012). This financial independence has made marriage become less of a necessity to them. The shifting trend of children being born before marriage can also be attributed to their economic independence as well as the decrease in the stigma associated with the trend (Deparle & Tavernise, 2012). The changing face of marriage and the norms concerning children in the American society today is attributed to the long-term cultural and material trends that changed the value of marriage during the 20th century. To begin with, there was an increase in emphasis on emotional gratification and romantic love.
Materially, there was an increase in wage labor, rising standards of living, a decrease in child and adult death rates as well as the economic empowerment of women (Cherlin, 2004). These alterations changed the meaning of marriage from an institution to a companionship. According to this new meaning of marriage, this was the only socially acceptable way of having a sexual relationship and raising children. Young adults married in their early twenties, and there was an increase in birth rates (Burgess & Locke, 1945). However, in the last four or five decades, this has changed, and marriage has taken a new meaning; men are marrying in their late twenties or early thirties and so are women. In addition, cohabitation has also become common.
Further, childbearing before one is married is no longer viewed as negatively as it used to be in the past. Further, birth rates have declined, while divorce rates are on the increase (Cherlin, 2004). In addition, same-sex unions are now becoming increasingly more acceptable than before. Marriage has moved from being a companionship union, but an individualized one. The individualized marriage is characterized by self-development in which each partner seeks to develop a fulfilling, independent self instead of giving oneself to the other partner. The second characteristic is that roles in the marriage union are now flexible and can be negotiated. In addition, communication and openness are now important in handling problems facing the couple (Cancian, 1987).
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