The image of the typical family – mum, dad, and two kids – still permeates how we define and understand the family in contemporary Australia. This ideal saturates our screens and newsfeeds and was at the centre of the marriage equality debate, underscoring the pervasiveness of the nuclear family as the dominant family form in our consciousness.
However, this conceptualisation masks the true nature of Australian families, which has changed significantly in recent decades. As sociologists and demographers have long known, the Australian family is as diverse and different as the country’s terrain.
Drawing on data from the 2016 Census, we know there are more than 6 million families in Australia. This is a significant increase from the 5 million or so families counted at the 2011 Census.
Of these 6 million families, the most-common family form (as illustrated in Figure 1) was the couple family with no children (37.76%). The next-most-common was couple families with dependent children under the age of 15 (30.64%).
These proportions confirm that the nuclear family is no longer the most common family form in Australia. One-parent families with dependent children comprise around 8% of all Australian families.
Reflecting this move away from the traditional, nuclear family and the rise of more couple families without children, is the size of families. In 2016, around 30% of all families were two-person families. A further 27% were four-person families.
Most couple families with children in Australia are so-called “intact families” (89.94%), consisting of at least one one child who is the natural or adopted child of both partners in the couple.
However, families are becoming increasingly more “blended”, as couples dissolve (due to separation, divorce or death of a partner) and new families are formed.
Blended families are a small proportion of modern Australian family forms, accounting for just over 3.7% of all families. This includes families with two or more children, at least one of whom is the natural or adopted child of both partners and at least one other child who is the step-child of one of them.
A further 6.3% of families are step-families. Here, there is at least one resident step-child, but no child who is the natural or adopted child of both partners.
Grandparent-led families are also increasingly significant.
Grandparents already play a significant role in Australian family lives through the provision of informal child care, but there are now just over 60,000 grandparent families in Australia (which a significant increase from estimates in 2004, which found around 22,500 grandparent families). Of those, 53% of grandparent families are couple families with grandchildren and 47% are lone grandparent families.
The 2016 Census gathered information on same-sex couples. Compared with opposite-sex couples, these data show that family forms differ across sexual orientation.
Overall, around 15% of same-sex couples had children. Female same-sex couples were more likely to be in couple families with dependent children (20.67%) compared to male same-sex couples (3.10%), or opposite-sex couples (37.8%).
However, same-sex couples were still more likely to be in couple families with no children than were opposite-sex couples, and they were more likely to have smaller families. Of those, around 54% of male same-sex couples with children and 51% of female same-sex couples with children had one-child families. One-third of same-sex couples had two children.
In comparison, 36% of opposite sex-couples had one child, and 42% had two children.
What these data from the 2016 Census show is just some of the diversity within the Australian family. While the idealised nuclear family of the past is no more, this does not mean that the family as a social institution is in decline, or that families in contemporary Australia are at risk.
But it does mean families are changing. Our political leaders should reflect on this diversity to ensure social policies reflect these differences, so that all families are well supported.
Have you ever been called somebody else’s name? How often has your own mother forgotten your name? Does she ever cycle through the names of each of your siblings, and perhaps even the family pet, before getting to yours?
Don’t worry, it’s probably not because she loves them more than you.
According to researchers at Duke University, misnaming is a common cognitive slip-up. In fact, it seems to occur most frequently between family members and close friends.
The researchers examined survey data from more than 1,700 participants, who were either undergraduate students or older individuals from the community. Regardless of age, those who had been misnamed reported being misnamed by someone they knew well. Likewise, those who had misnamed someone reported doing so to a familiar person.
Misnaming usually occurs within the same semantic category. So, family members are misnamed with another family member’s name and friends are misnamed with another friend’s name.
Names are also more likely to be confused when they share phonetic similarities. For example, misnaming will potentially occur more often if you have children named Dan and Stan.
Notably, the study found misnaming has little to do with physical similarity – which is certainly reassuring if you have ever been called by the dog’s name.
A method to the madness
The finding that we often mix up names that are semantically and phonetically related, rather than at random, gives insights into the way our memories for names are organised in the brain.
The brain tends to group names that are related. They can be related because they belong to a similar semantic category (e.g. family members, school friends, work friends). Or, they can be related because they sound alike (e.g., names starting with “S”).
According to network theories of language, each individual word is linked to other words that share similar conceptual properties. For example, your brother’s name, Paul, might be linked to your other siblings’ names (Kylie, David), as well as other names that start with “P” (Peter).
Because these names share links and are stored in close proximity in the brain, saying one name may also bring to mind other semantically or phonetically similar names. This maximises efficiency, as the brain is able to retrieve closely related information faster.
What happens when these processes break down?
Like knowledge about other types of cognitive abilities, much has been gained from studying people where the ability has been disrupted due to damage in the brain.
Our research group has a special interest in studying individuals with semantic dementia. Like other types of dementia, semantic dementia is caused by the abnormal accumulation of proteins in the brain. This ultimately leads to cell death and shrinkage of different brain regions.
In semantic dementia, the anterior temporal lobe, a part of the brain situated behind the ear, is most affected.
Individuals with semantic dementia, as the name suggests, show a progressive loss of semantic knowledge (our knowledge about facts, places, things and names). One of the earliest symptoms in semantic dementia is difficulty in naming things.
Naming difficulties in semantic dementia
People with semantic dementia show very specific types of naming errors. For example, they may call a “zebra” a “horse”, or an “animal”. This suggests that as semantic knowledge is lost, our understanding of the world becomes less specific and more generalised.
People with semantic dementia also have difficulty in recognising and naming people. This depends on which side of the brain is more affected.
People with semantic dementia who have more atrophy/shrinkage in the left hemisphere of the brain commonly struggle to recognise names. In contrast, those with greater atrophy in the right hemisphere have more trouble recognising people’s faces.
This kind of research gives us important insights into how names are represented in the brain.
It’s harder than it looks
The ability to recognise someone and call them by their correct name is incredibly complex, even though it feels like second nature to us.
Calling a person by their correct name requires integration of information across both hemispheres of the brain to connect face and name knowledge in mere milliseconds.
Understanding how this process goes wrong – whether through misnaming someone, struggling to say that word on the tip of your tongue, or switching around two words or sounds – gives us important insights into how our brain stores and retrieves the seemingly endless number of names and faces we know.
What does this mean for those of us who frequently misname our family and friends? Based on what we know about how names are organised in the brain, this common cognitive slip-up could be the brain’s way of trying to make our life easier, rather than a sign of something sinister.
So next time you say the wrong name, spare a moment to consider how challenging this ability is and how much work our brains do in order for us to call someone by their name.
The link below is to an article/chart that explains extended family relationships.
The link below is to a very useful and interesting article concerning family.
The link below is to an article that looks at 150 questions to ask family members about their lives.