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Non-Traditional Families May Be Typical American Family:
Applying Disney Films to the Discussion

James R. Harris, Jr., Ph.D. 

This article is reprinted with the permission of the author, James Harris, Jr. author of: Respecting Residential Work with Children, 2003 & Promoting Healthy Childhood Development Today, 2007. 

There is no doubting that America has undergone transformations over the past half century. This includes the makeover of the traditional American family. While the long-established nuclear family still exists, it is now joined by alternative households, including adoptive, foster, kinship, and blended families.

At the start of the twenty-first century nearly two million families in America included adopted children. In addition, over one-half million youth lived in out-of-home care settings such as foster homes, group homes, and residential treatment centers. Of this group, nearly one-quarter resided in kinship care placements while the remaining majority of children lived in traditional foster homes.

Now, aside from the ways in which the American household has changed, there is often widespread discussion of how children have changed too. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear them labeled as disrespectful, truant, lazy, angry, aggressive and violent, etc.. There is also the frequently expressed belief that youth today are just not reaching their potential.

While some of these assertions may apply (at times) to some youth, it is unfair to look at the way kids have changed without also addressing the role that adults have had in this occurrence. For, in recent decades many factors have contributed to the way that children come into the world, and are reared. Some of these include the practice of casual sex, without precaution (thankfully teen pregnancies has been on the decline in this country), adults/parents who are not committed to their relationship with their co-parent, drugs and/or alcohol abuse, and a general trend to push kids to grow up more quickly. While factors such as unemployment and poverty go without saying, the aforementioned list was intended to highlight some of the things that parents/adults can control.

As it relates to pushing children along, In The Hurried Child, by David Elkind (2001), the noted author looks at how parental roles and societal factors rush children along, regardless of the individual’s developmental pace. Elkind contends that hurrying children along can alter their developmental growth. This in turn burdens the child even as he/she enters adulthood. He implies that in this fast-paced society, we assume children are super kids who can keep up with the pace we project unto them. Elkind sarcastically states, “Like Superman, Super kid has spectacular powers and precocious competence even as an infant. Thus, we think we can hurry the little powerhouses with impunity” (p.xii).

Formals for sixth-graders………accepting that kids can date prior to high school…..what are we thinking?

As the family has changed in America – it does not mean it has evolved. Actually, in many instances we are doing a great disservice to children.


There are many Disney movies that could be used in discussion of families; films that touch upon many relevant themes. After all, Disney has been able to change with the times. For instance, consider two of their 2002 features, The Country Bears and Treasure Planet Both of these films can be used in deliberating the 21st century family. The youth in these films are Beary Barrington (Country Bears), a ten-year old bear that was adopted (by a human family, no less) and Jim Hawkins (Treasure Planet), an adolescent who grew up without ever knowing his father (who had abandoned the family). These movies touch on many themes: adoption, including transracial adoption, single-parent families, paternal deprivation, and the importance of the unconditional belief of one adult in the child’s life (parent or not).

Because of their highlighted subject matter, these contemporary Disney films can be applied to the ways that many children and youth are being reared in this country. Whether it is a question of values or morals, or whether the stress of modern America is to blame, children are no longer assured of being reared in stable and healthy environments.


In Kids Who Outwit Adults (2002) by John Seita and Larry Brendtro the authors talk about “families on the edge” and how this is impacting children. Youth who do not have (at least) one positive adult to bond with are deprived of the ingredients for positive development (Seita and Brendtro, 2002). The authors warn us that:

Modern society is producing packs of kids detached from adults. Some roam wild as “mall orphans” while others are being banished from our schools and communities. Children that are not allowed to bond to a caring adult come to believe that they are unwanted and unlovable. They target their rage at adults, who failed to meet their need for love, and at themselves for not deserving that love. Defiant and distrustful, they are society’s unclaimed kids. They are forever biting the hand that didn’t feed them (Seita and Brendtro, 2002, p. 8).

The authors write about a concept called “Family Privilege.” This is described as follows:

Family Privilege is an invisible package of assets and pathways that provides us with a sense of belonging, safety, unconditional love and spiritual values. With Family Privilege, children observe parents and older siblings to see the effort that it takes to be successful in life. Family Privilege provides the chance to hope and dream (p. 10).

If we look at another Disney film, and the life of Cinderella, we know that she was deprived of Family Privilege. Her stepmother and stepsisters were mean and uncaring, treating her as if Cinderella were their personal slave. If not for her Fairy God Mother, who believed in and helped her (as well as her mouse friends, Jaq and Gus), the future may not have been so bright for Cinderella. This movie, which remains one of Walt Disney’s greatest animated triumphs, shows that the human spirit is strong – but we all need a little help along the way.

In Treasure Planet, Jim Hawkins had a loving mother. In The Country Bears, Beary Barrington had a loving family - in spite of his being a bear and his family was human…..we can stretch the truth because, after all, Beary talked, walked, wore clothes, etc. just like a human. (In fact, one of early lines in the movie explains how Beary joined the family when his adoptive brother told him, “You were an abandoned cub. Mom and Dad picked you up, showed you a bunch of Barney videos, and pretended you were their son.”)

Joking notwithstanding, because Jim had a devoted mother and Beary had loving adoptive parents these youngsters were afforded the chance to find their way in life. This helped them avoid the years of mistreatment that Cinderella, endured. They had Family Privilege. (While Jim Hawkins did not have a biological figure to aspire to, he did have a neighbor, Dr. Doppler, a male figure who looked in on them.)

As The Country Bears and Treasure Planet demonstrate, children from non-traditional families can assuredly make it, but sometimes it can be a little stressful. Both Beary and Jim had to leave home to find their answers. While their departure provided growth opportunities, they still relied on the guidance of other adults. In Jim’s case, he formed a connection with John Silver. And, Beary quickly garnered the support of Henry and the Country Bears. These (substitute) relationships with adults can never be underscored in the development of a child.

Other Family Types in 21st Century America

As this article has stated, there are many family-types, aside from the traditional family in America. An examination of three of the more common will follow:

I. Adoptive Families
II. Blended families,
III. Kinship care.


With so many unplanned pregnancies (and, sadly, many unwanted children), perhaps building a family through adoption demonstrates our better side of humanity.

As Beary’s father stated to him “The people that love you, no matter what…… they’re your family.” He was right on the mark. The sad state of affairs in our country is that many children who might be adopted into good and loving homes (and at a younger age their chance to be adopted is even greater) are having their fate played out in courtrooms. In some cases these youth are spending their formative years in foster homes or residential treatment facilities.

In 1997, the federal government issued legislation (Adoption and Safe Families Act: ASFA) aimed at stopping youth from spending their childhoods in “the system.” (As a side, various federal guidelines are aimed at keeping children home, whenever possible, through family preservation services.) Hopefully, if states fully implement the principles of ASFA, and as they search a child’s family for a kinship care placement (covered later) less children will grow up in congregate care settings.

In The Country Bears Beary learns that even though he might not look like his parents, or his brother, he is loved. This unconditional love is paramount in defining a family. It is not unexpected that when these youth are adopted at a younger age, they are able to attach and bond with their new family, much more easily than if adopted as an adolescent. This is easy enough to understand and validates the belief that if a child can become available for adoption at a younger age, instead of being at the mercy of legalities, they, and their families can make it.

As a whole, adopted children have fewer problems and better educational attainment than even those youth in single-parent homes (Fergusson, Lynskey, and Horwood, 1995). This is attributed to the following:

  • They tend to be better off economically, thus they attend better schools;
  • They receive higher quality healthcare;
  • Adopted families tend to be more stable than single-parent families, and interaction between adoptive parents and the child tend to be warm and nurturing.

But, there are differences when comparing adolescents (who were not adopted prior to elementary-school age) to their peers raised by biological parents in intact families (Kirschner, 1996, Rice and Dolgin, 2002). These differences include that adopted adolescents typically:

  • do not do as well in school;
  • are not as popular with their peers;
  • are more prone to conduct disorders.

This list is not surprising. Adolescents who are available for adoption may have had very traumatic pasts. They could have suffered abuse and/or neglect, been moved from a broken home into a foster home or residential treatment placement, and may have learned to keep others at a distance. Their inability to connect and attach can be overcome, but it takes patience and hard work. These relationships do not just happen overnight, in a week, or even a month. (This is not to say that adopting adolescence is a bad practice. Its just that we need to keep or expectations in check, and make sure that counseling services are available during the pre-adoption through post-adoption phase.)

The last area of this section has to do with transracial adoption children and youth. This is becoming more commonplace in this country as couples, looking to adopt infants, are finding that the process is easier by going overseas. In these cases, as children approach adolescence, they feel the need to search for their roots; to find out who they are, and how they fit into the world.

In many states across America there have been efforts to keep African American children with African American parents. This includes children in foster care – and children awaiting adoption. It can be a highly charged debate. While nobody can argue the benefits of keeping children with families that reflect their culture, what if an African American family cannot be identified? Isn’t it better for a child to grow up in a loving and permanent home rather than wallowing away in the child welfare system?

These are tough questions.

Of course, there is an obligation that parents adopting children of different cultures must accept: they must ensure that the child grows up knowing his or her place in the world. Adoptive parents must be able to tell of and help the child experience their culture. In these cases it is up to the adoptive parent to research and find literature, videos, etc. that will help the child learn that even though they are part of a loving family, they are unique and special in their own right.


Blended families have become common in our new America society. A child’s lifde may now include natural parents and siblings, stepparents and stepsiblings, grandparents and step grandparents, etc. Because blended families are such a part of American life, we have begun to realize what works and does not work in these family types. Frequent studies are helping us understand how these burgeoning household-types are progressing – and what supports they need.

One of the items discovered is that children to maintain regular contact with the nonresidential parent. This takes a committed effort on both parties since research concludes that after remarriage the nonresidential parent (typically the father) decreases contact.

It is also interesting to note that stepmothers, more often than stepfathers, experience greater difficulties in rearing their stepchildren than their own biological children. This may be because stepmothers play a more creative role in relation to children and spend more time with them than do stepfathers (Ambert, 1986). In addition, fairytales (i.e.: Cinderella) and folklore have developed the stereotype of the cruel stepmother and this is hard to overcome (Fine, 1986).

Problems are multiplied if the parent without custody tries to get a child to dislike the stepparent (Rice and Dolgin, 2002). In addition, stepparents can compound problems by speaking disrespectfully about a biological parent in front of the child. That is why it is important that children be permitted to “mourn” the loss of the divorced parent that lives apart from them. After all, when the parent they are living with remarries it end or possibilities (and hopes of the child) that his parents will reunite.

In a nutshell, blended families have blossomed onto the scene but are not without their tribulations While some of these have been discussed in this section, further research can point to other issues that make this family type so unique:

  • stepparents may over indulge their children because they feel guilty about their divorce;
  • stepparents roles are not clearly defined;
  • stepparents are left to deal with the emotional issues from their prior marriages and divorces; and,
  • they must deal with stepsibling relationships.

With this accepted family type it is important to stress that all the adults (stepparents and biological parents) need to keep the lines of communication open – and need to respect each other (at least in front of and to the children).


Traditionally, kinship has been an informal service that family members provide for each other without the involvement of the child welfare system (Child Welfare League of America, 1994). Informal kinship care has been provided on a temporary basis when parents are unable to care for their children (Gleeson, 1999). Kinship care is provided to children by their aunts and uncles, grandparents, and other members of the extended family. And, while kinship care is still overwhelmingly informal, the growing numbers of children entering the child welfare system has resulted in states having to become involved in finding placements.

Most of children in out-of-home care (including family foster care, group homes and institutions) are in family foster care (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS], 2000). This type of care has been getting its fair share of attention in recent years, something that is long overdue, especially when we consider that as recently as the 1990’s there was not much written material on the subject (Gleeson, 1999).

Kinship care is noted here briefly because it has made its way into the mainstream. It is an important level of care because whenever we can keep children in with their extended families (when their parents can’t take care of them) this is a good thing. Kinship care also keeps children within their own culture, a point of contention that some folks have, and that was mentioned in the adoption section. Aside from children remaining with their families, kinship care keeps youth out of group homes and residential treatment centers.


Today children are being reared in households in which they may have access to one or two adult caretakers, to male or female role models, to one or more cultures, etc. There is no longer just one way to be a family. And, just as the makeup of families have changed, so too, must be the ways that we view our children, and their individual needs.

Families are different today……..and perhaps kids are too. But, then again, why wouldn’t they be?


Ambert, A. (1986). Being a Stepparent: Live-in and Visiting Stepchildren.” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 48, 795-804.

Child Welfare League of America. (1994). Kinship Care: A Natural Bridge. Washington, DC: Author

Elkind, D. (2001). The Hurried Child Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

Fergusson, D.M., Lynskey, M., and Horwood, L.J. (1995). “The Adolescent Outcomes of Adoption: A 16-Year Longitudinal Study.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 36, 597-615.

Fine, M. (1986). “Perceptions of Stepparents: Variations in Stereotypes as a Function of Current Family Structure.” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 48, 537-543.

Gleeson, J. (1999). “Kinship Care as a Child Welfare Service: What do we really know?” Kinship Care: Improving Practice Through Research. (Gleeson, J. and Finney Hairston, C., eds.). Washington, DC: CWLA Press.

Kirschner, D. (1996). “Adoption Psychopathology and the ‘Adopted Child Syndrome’.” The Hatherleigh Guide to Child and Adolescent Therapy (pp. 103-123). New York: Hatherleigh Press.

Rice, F. and Dolgin, K. (2002). The Adolescent: Development, Relationships, and Culture. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Seita, J. & Brendtro, L. (2002) Kids Who Outwit Adults. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2000). Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). Available: http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/programs/cb/stats/tarreport/rpt0100/ar0100.html (2005, March 8).

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