As we continue to wrestle with the complexity of understanding families, one large task would be simply defining the word family. A family may meet the traditional image of two married, biological parents and their children—or it may mean single parents, grandparents raising children, same-sex couples raising children, adoptive parents, or foster parents. Parents may be of the same or different religions and of the same or different races or cultures. The changing composition of the family does not change what is important to the child about being a member of a family, however. A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics states, “Children’s optimal development seems to be influenced more by the nature of the relationships and interactions within the family unit than by the particular structural form it takes” (Perrin, 2002, p. 341). In the recent past, we considered the two-biological-parent family as “normal” and regarded any other family structure as having deficits. The many changes in the structure of families have caused us to look at this differently. We currently view all families as having both risk factors and protective factors (Seifer, Sameroff, Baldwin, & Baldwin, 1992). Risk factors are those life events or personal characteristics that threaten a child or family’s well-being. Protective factors are the events and characteristics that act against risk factors (Donahoo, 2003). Any family structure may have risk factors and protective factors, given the particular characteristics of the family. For example, a calm, nurturing single-parent home would provide more protection than a two-biological-parent home affected by alcohol and violence. Children can grow up happily, healthy, and without serious problems in all kinds of families, but children in two-parent households are more likely to escape poverty, teenaged unmarried childbearing, and school and mental health issues (ChildTrends 2002; Weitoft, Hjern, Haglund, & Rosén, 2003). The majority of American children live in two-parent households; however, according to census reports, that percentage has been steadily decreasing since the 1960s. About 69% of children live with two parents (biological or stepparents), 22% live with only their mother, 4% live with only their father, and 4% live with neither parent (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). In order to work effectively with extremely diverse families and their infants and toddlers, it is helpful to understand some of the issues that may be related to family structure. There are so many variations to the American family, and the issues surrounding them are so complex, that the following discussion should be considered a brief introduction to a topic worthy of deeper study.
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