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Family Structure

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

Updated September 30, 2022

Why it's important

Families come in many forms, and how people define and exist in families differs across cultures. Family units can include multiple generations, legal guardians, family friends, and other loved ones. According to the Pew Research Center,1 there is no longer a dominant family structure in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau notes2 a decrease in the number of families with two parents living in one household, which was previously the norm.

Family structure can impact educational experiences, as well. Young people living in poverty are less likely3,4 to finish high school or complete college. In contrast, students from families with greater financial earnings — including dual-income families, who typically earn more than single-income families and are often headed by two parents — complete college at higher rates,5,6 highlighting educational inequities.7,8,9

When we discuss family, it is important to remain thoughtful about and inclusive of the various ways families are structured and how those structures might impact students' educational experiences.

Family-Inclusive Language

Language regarding a family should acknowledge the diverse family structures, formations, and dynamics that exist. Steer away from language that excludes certain family makeups, such as families led by single parents, LGBTQ+ individuals, and caregivers who are not the biological parents of children in the household.

Do not assume the relationship status between individuals. It is OK to ask about family members’ relationships to one another. Use any desired labels they may request.

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Avoid Saying

Consider Replacing With

Why This Matters

parents, mom and dad
parents and guardians, caregivers
Caregivers are not necessarily biological or adoptive parents.
son, daughter
children, younger family members
Try not to make assumptions about younger family members' relationships to older family members or their gender.
extended family
family, family unit
"Extended" often refers to family members outside the nuclear unit: grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. However, many family units include these relatives and other loved ones.
household members
family members, family unit
Family members do not always live in the same house.

Family Situations to Consider

Foster Care

Foster children may experience a variety of family structures during their lives. Do not make assumptions about a young person’s foster care situation — each experience is unique. It is OK and important to ask questions when you are unsure about an individual’s family structure and how they wish to label or identify the people who make up their family unit. Some people prefer person-first language regarding foster care (e.g., “people formerly in the foster care system” instead of “former foster youth”).

Adoption

When discussing adoption, note that it is more respectful and compassionate to say children are “placed for adoption” rather than “given up for adoption.” Avoid using terms like “real” or “first” parents/family. Instead, consider “biological” or “birth” parent/family.

Homelessness

Not all families have stable housing, and not all unstable housing situations are considered “homelessness.” Use language that allows individuals to self-define their living situation or arrangements. Phrases such as “a place you call home,” “a home space,” or “where you stay” can be more accurate, inclusive, or empathetic ways to refer to a variety of living situations. Some may prefer to be considered “unhoused,” “houseless,” or “experiencing homelessness.”

Read More: For more advice related to this topic, see the Socioeconomic Status section of our Conscious Language Guide.

Applying to and Paying for College

Don’t make assumptions about a student’s ability to pay for college or conduct scholarship searches. Not all students receive financial support or guidance navigating the college application process. To be inclusive, acknowledge that some students navigate these processes independently while others may have the support of counselors, tutors, and family members.

Angelique Geehan

Reviewed by:

Angelique Geehan

Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have with themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender binary-nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange — a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including the National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup and QTPOC+ Family Circle.

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Sources

  1. Pew Research Center. (2015, December 17). Parenting in America: The American family today. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2015/12/17/1-the-american-family-today/
  2. United States Census Bureau. (n.d.). Figure CH-1: Living arrangements of children: 1960 to present [Graph]. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/visualizations/time-series/demo/families-and-households/ch-1.pdf
  3. Ratcliffe, C. (2015, September). Child poverty and adult success. Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/65766/2000369-Child-Poverty-and-Adult-Success.pdf
  4. DoSomething.org. (n.d.). 11 facts about education and poverty in America. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-education-and-poverty-america
  5. Braga, B., McKernan, S., Ratcliffe, C., & Baum, S. (2017, April). Wealth inequality is a barrier to education and social mobility. Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/89976/wealth_and_education_4.pdf
  6. Sullivan, J. (2020, September). Comparing characteristics and selected expenditures of dual- and single-income households with children. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2020/article/comparing-characteristics-and-selected-expenditures-of-dual-and-single-income-households-with-children.htm
  7. Johnson Hess, A. (2019, May 29). Georgetown study: 'To succeed in America, it's better to be born rich than smart.' CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/29/study-to-succeed-in-america-its-better-to-be-born-rich-than-smart.html
  8. Tavernise, S. (2012, February 10). Education gap grows between rich and poor, studies say. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/education/education-gap-grows-between-rich-and-poor-studies-show.html
  9. Barshay, J. (2020, June 29). A decade of research on the rich-poor divide in education: Many studies show large and growing inequities. The Hechinger Report. https://hechingerreport.org/a-decade-of-research-on-the-rich-poor-divide-in-education/