Family Life


While somewhat less obvious than some of the other attributes, family life is a common element in all cultures across the world. In some cultures the mother or matriarch possesses most of the power within the family unit, but in others the father or patriarch is the head of the family. Some cultures favor monogamous family relationships, while others embrace polygamy where a man may have several wives. Family traditions and rituals vary throughout the world and are an integral element of all cultures. Look at the list below to learn more about some common family elements in world cultures:

A family system where the man has several wives. It is common for him to have children with each of these wives and thus a very large family. While very much legal and accepted in some cultures, polygamy is against the law in other locations such as the U.S.

In a matriarchy, the head of the family is a woman. She is usually the eldest female in the family and her word is considered law within the family unit.

Different in gender only, patriarchy is when the eldest male in the family is the family's leader and guide. While many Western cultures have male family leaders, it is not uncommon for the eldest female to fill this role either formally or informally. Even in North America, matriarchy is common among Native American cultures.

Arranged Marriages:
In many cultures, children do not decide whom they get to marry. It is common for the parents to arrange marriages. Arranged marriages are often used to unite two families in business ventures, as trade partners, or for political means. When arranged, marriages are generally designed for the practical benefit of the bride and groom and their families. Young adults are not permitted to date and fall in love prior to wedding. While this may seem odd since it is contrary to American culture, it is a widely practiced and accepted aspect of life in other parts of the world. It is also important to understand that just because a marriage is arranged doesn't mean that the couple won't still have a happy and successful partnership.

In many cultures, children live with their parents until they wed, although in others it is common for children to live alone after reaching adulthood. In still other cultures, a newly married couple will live with parents and grandparents keeping the family unit together. These customs vary tremendously throughout the world.
Children also often act as a labor force in cultures that depend heavily on agriculture. It is common for children to work on farms with their families for the majority of their lives. In some cultures, having many children ensures that there will always be family members to tend to the farm.

Same Sex Couples/Families:
Much more common today than ever before, couples of the same gender are now publicly raising their own families and are also beginning to find some acceptance within the legal world. Recently, the United States passed a law allowing same sex marriages so now same sex married couples enjoy the same rights under the law as heterosexual couples. While some people are beginning to accept and embrace same sex couples and families, there is still resistance in some cultures and in others it is considered forbidden. Beliefs regarding the social and cultural acceptance of same sex couples and families vary tremendously across cultures and even among regions within the same culture.

Key Questions About Family Life

1. Why do you think family life is considered one of the ten attributes of culture?

2. How has the role of family in daily life changed over time? Think of a few distinct differences in families and family life over the past decades, centuries, you name it.

3. Look at the religion page and see if you can think of connections between a family's religion and the impact of that belief system on family life. What role do you think religion plays on family life?

4. As a young person living in a culture that frowns upon arranged marriages, how do you feel about the idea of arranged marriages?

5. Why do you think some cultures favor very large families while others such as China actually put limits on the number of children a couple may have? What does this tell you about a given culture?