The 1950s Family: Structure, Values and Everyday Life

Published December 29, 2020
1950s family walking along a sidewalk

In the aftermath of WWII's significant instability came the 1950s, suburbia, and the dream of a "picture-perfect" family. The 1950s were boomer years. The economy boomed, and everywhere individuals were feeling the need for family and security after arduous years of the war. So, in 1950s family life, there was also a marriage boom, birth rate boom, and housing boom.

The 1950s Family

During the 50s, there was a deeply ingrained social stigma against divorce, and the divorce rate dropped. So, the stereotypical nuclear family of the 1950s consisted of an economically stable family made up of a father, mother, and two or three children. Children were precious assets and the center of the family. Very few wives worked, and even if they had to work, it was combined with their role as housewives and mothers. Few husbands spent "quality" time with their children or helped around the house. Dad's role was to be the breadwinner, advice giver, and family disciplinarian.

Father handing note to young daughter

What 1950s Parents Wanted for Their Kids

Parents wanted their children to have better lives than they had had and did everything possible to make life "good" for their kids and grow them into successful adults. Children were taught manners and taken to Sunday school or church. Generally, parents were permissive and wanted their kids to have a more fun and comfortable childhood than they'd had during the war effort of WWII.

Raising Girls in the 50s

Little girls were expected to be "nice." They helped around the house, wore dresses and skirts, and were taught to be deferential. Even as children, girls felt family and societal pressure to focus their aspirations on home, husband, and children instead of higher education. It wasn't uncommon for a girl to marry and begin having children shortly after high school graduation. Girls were not groomed or encouraged to attend college, and if their parents did provide them with higher education, it was with the expectation that they'd meet a suitable husband and have a career they could fall back on.

1950s mother teaching her daughter how to cook

Raising Boys in the 50s

Male children were expected to be strong, responsible, and assertive, but also mischievous. Boys were encouraged to enlarge themselves, explore, and claim extra territory. Parents tried to build their son's ego. They wanted him to be a winner. They encouraged their sons to excel in school, in athletics, and to attend college. Parents gave their boys more mobility, authority, and respect, but in the end, parents also expected their boys to settle down and have a family.

Permissive Parenting

Many mothers read Dr. Benjamin Spock's 1946 book Baby and Child Care and followed his advice to hug, kiss, and encourage their children to express their individuality. His controversial advice was that parents need not worry about spoiling their children. They should tell their children they were special, feed them when they were hungry, put them to bed when they were tired, and discipline them with words rather than corporal punishment. Many say Dr. Spock's advice led to overly permissive child rearing, which led to the independence and rebellious nature of 1950s teenagers.

The Stereotypical Boomer Family

Due to the booming economy, the stereotypical boomer family had more money. With the establishment of the Federal Housing Authority (FDA) and the Veterans Administration (VA) home loan programs, many white middle-class American parents found it easy to borrow money from a bank and move out of cities and small towns into newly built homes in the suburbs. Sadly, due to legal discrimination, this was not yet possible for people of color who were restricted to less desirable neighborhoods even when they had the where-with-all to relocate to better surroundings.

Life in the Suburbs

Life was different in the suburbs. Suburbs were free, social, friendly, and family-oriented. Many families lived close together, and there were all sorts of group social activities. There were little league teams, boy and girl scouts, and the Parent and Teacher Association (PTA) at schools. Kids walked to school together and had next door best friends. When the weather was nice, neighbors gathered in one back yard or another to cook, eat, and chat. Doors were seldom locked, and suburban parents unofficially watched after each other's children. However, the suburbs also reflected socioeconomic and racial homogeneity.

1950s kids riding toy cars and bikes on sidewalk

Growing Up in the 1950s

During the 1950s, kids played together. They talked on the family phone for hours, kept diaries, rode their bikes, played games, watched TV, had sleepovers and dance parties. There were no cell phones, texting, or internet, so youngsters interacted face to face or wrote letters in cursive on stationary without spellcheck.

The Cold War Fear and Paranoia

Due to what's called the "Cold War," children of the 50s also lived in an atmosphere of fear. There were bomb and fallout shelters, and weekly "Duck-and-Cover" drills that required students to duck under their desks and cover their heads in preparation for what seemed to them an inevitable atomic attack. Some schools even issued dog tags to students so that families could identify their child's body in the event of an attack. There was also the crippling Polio virus. Many parents were so fearful of Polio that they volunteered their children to be experimented on as "Polio Pioneers."

Teenagers in the 1950s

Teenagers came into their own during the 1950s, assisted by increased spending power, the ubiquity of the car, and high school's elevation to a world with its own speech patterns, style of dress, beliefs, pastimes, music, and social mores. Clean-cut boys and girls living life in the suburbs, seemingly without a worry in the world, became teenagers who were independent, interactive, pleasure bound, and rebellious.

Shockingly Innocent

Although 1950s parents saw their teenagers behave in ways that shocked them, such as listening to rock-and-roll music, new risque dance moves, and their overall self-determining and defiant mindset, compared to 21st Century teens, these teens were extraordinarily innocent. There were no drugs to muddle their minds, and because alcohol was hard for them to get, there was no binge drinking either. As far as sex goes, most 1950s teenagers were shy virgins.

Teenage Jobs

While middle-class white families took care of a teen's needs and often gave them an allowance, most teens still worked. For a 1950s teen, having an after-school or summer job meant independence and money of their own. Teenagers with their own income, coupled with an allowance, were free to buy pretty much what they wanted, and a serious escalation of advertising aimed at teenagers began.

Cars and Teenagers

Teenagers with cars were common due to the prosperity of their parents and incomes of their own. Cars provided a teenager with independence and a teen couple with a place to spend time alone away from parents' prying eyes. Though most 1950s teens were virgins who had been taught marriage before sex, cars began changing their sexual behavior.

1950s car hop at drive-in restaurant with teenage customers


The term "rock-and-roll" caught on when it was coined in 1952. This new form of music gave teens an outlet for their rebellious energy. During the 1950s, most parents tried, unsuccessfully, to make their children stop listening to Rock-and-Roll because they believed it caused juvenile delinquency and knew it challenged social and racial barriers. However, with a swelling teenage consumer market, jukebox operators, radio stations, and deejays played to their teen listeners' tastes, and record stores stocked up on 45 RPM recordings of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and more. Rock-and-Roll became a mainstay due to 1950s teens.

Teen Movies of the 1950s

Because of the privacy they offered, 1950s teenagers loved and frequented movie theaters and drive-in movies. This led to Hollywood focusing more and more on this younger teenage market. They produced films such as High School confidential, Blackboard Jungle, Teen Rebel, The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause, and more, which fed 1950s teens' rebellious spirit. Still, Hollywood also produced films like Them!, which was a 1954 cautionary tale about giant irradiated ants that fed into teenage fears about the Soviet menace and nuclear war.

Peaceful Conformity

The 1950s are often considered a period of conformity when parents conformed to their assigned mother and father roles and pursued the "American Dream." After the Great Depression and WWII devastation, it was a time when people sought to create a peaceful and prosperous society. But the 1950s were not as peaceful or conformist as you might think. Simmering beneath the image of the "perfect family" was discontent with the status quo that led to the tumultuous family life of 1960s.

The 1950s Family: Structure, Values and Everyday Life