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Not so long ago, 90% of all people in European countries, when asked for a definition of “family” would have answered: father – mother –child(ren), possibly including close relatives. Today the answers diverge, not only within one country but also between countries, depending on the pace of change, on the relevance of family ideologies, and on personal experiences. Although there are some doubts regarding the “pluralisation of family forms” it can be regarded as a matter of fact that the above definition is covering only a part of family realities and has to be enlarged by patchwork-families, with children from former partners (not) included any more in the family system or belonging to it as an extended family; single parent families; rainbow families with children; “network families” including not only kin but social members etc.

Despite the fact that different forms of families exist in every society and despite big variations of family life, in 1994 a group of UN experts proposed a relatively universal definition of family, according to which family consists of at least one adult taking care of at least one child. At the core of this definition lies the existence of any parental relationship. Various disciplines and contemporary family law are approaching this kind of inclusive understanding of family.

At the same time, the distinction between being parents and parental duties, associated with discourses on parental competences is highly debated. This reveals tensions between the will to respect private life and freedom and the conviction that parents hold a social function which has to be controlled or at least supported by public institutions, especially when it appears as failing.

In GOETE, family – no matter how to be defined – is regarded as an important supporting structure for educational trajectories. Within the knowledge society, there are new expectations regarding this role of the family – which represent a hidden gendered agenda.


Biggart, Andrew & Kovacheva, Siyka (2006) ‘Social Change, Family Support and Young Adults in Europe’. In Manuela du Bois-Reymond & Lynne Chisholm (eds.) Modernisation of Youth Transitions in Europe. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

United Nations (1994): Family: Forms and Functions. Occasional Series Papers, No 2.

Cheal, David (2008) Families in today’s world. London: Routledge.

(Barbara Stauber & Mirjana Ule)