Back to top

Families take center stage on some of network TV's newest hit shows. But the make-up of these families is a bit different than in the past...No longer is the focus solely on the nuclear family and how it navigates day-to-day life in the home, in school, and at the office. Instead, the family is defined in much broader terms. Grandparents aren't just occasional or supporting players - they are critical to the soul of the family, but also have their own lives, needs and motivations. Kids and their parents still play a key role, but so do cousins and aunts and uncles. Today's modern family - at least on TV - is more complex than ever before.

Like a "Who's Who," or a "What's What" of non-traditional families, the roster for the ABC show, Modern Family, includes a gay couple raising an adopted Korean child, a newly minted stepdad of a son from Columbia whose son is younger than many of the stepdad's grandchildren, and a more traditional family, consisting of two parents and three kids. The show depicts parents who are trying to do the right thing for their kids, while their kids are trying hard to learn the rules of the world around them, and parents are trying to do their best for their teenagers as they struggle with independence. (Photo from ABC.com)

But do these fictional families reflect reality? Like many of these families, the answer to that question is complicated.

Based purely on demographics, we would say, "no." The majority of U.S. families are still white, two-parent households, and are not likely to include an adopted child. But while these families might not replicate the majority, they more than mirror a growing minority of families who deviate from the "norm," or perhaps better said, are challenging the notion that a norm really exists. A few facts:

TV - even reality TV - aims to tap into our fantasies. It doesn't try to show us ourselves as we really are but, instead, it shows us who we aspire to be (or not be), where we wish we could go (or not go), and what we wish we could say or do. And we think the fantasy that these shows tap into tell us as much about the fantasies of the modern audience as they do about the reality of the modern family. Today's aspirational family (as always) isn't just like us, but better. They might look different than us, but struggle with the same things. And for many of us, they look exactly like us - and show us that these families count as much as the traditional families that are usually reaffirmed by the small screen.

So, what does this tell us about the lives of today's kids, tweens and teens? They're growing up during a time when you don't assume your friends' families are just like yours. It means that you're likely to know a family like the ones featured on these shows - and you might even be a part of one yourself. Finally, it means that today's youth are likely to expect the culture around them to reflect the way their families really are - or the kinds of families that they wouldn't mind being part of.