QUESTION: About what percentage of children in the United States lives in families with two parents?

(a) 95% (b) 75% (c) 55% (d) 35%

Give yourself full points if you picked (b). In 1981, according to the Census Bureau, 76 percent of children under 18 lived in households with two parents.

To many of us, the answer seems to run counter to intuition. We have been hearing for some years now that the American family is falling apart, that people are getting divorces in increased numbers, that single parents are raising families in more and more cases, that children come home in increasing numbers to houses where adults are not present for large parts of the day. All true--to a point. In 1981, there were 109 divorces for every 1,000 married persons--a record rate. There were 4.5 million more children living in single-parent households than a decade ago.

Other trends seem to work against what we regard as the traditional family as well. In 1970, there were 10.8 million Americans living alone. In 1981, there were 18.9 million. And in 1970, there were 523,000 people living in what the Census Bureau calls (and it is as good a name as any we've heard) "unmarried couple households." In 1981, there were 1.8 million. But these figures do not bode as badly for the family as one would think. The increase in the number of people living alone is a sign of affluence: we may think Uncle Henry liked living with his nephew's family, or that cousin Rebecca liked living with her parents after college; but if they up and got their own apartments when they could afford it, we can assume they're happier living alone. As for "unmarried couple households," in 28 percent of them (with some 502,000 adults) there were children under 15. These young people are living in homes with two parents, even if they haven't gotten married.

Even the rate of divorces does not mean the end of the family: the large majority of people who get divorces remarry. There is a change in behavior here; people who would have stayed married to person A a generation or two ago are now getting divorced and, sooner or later, marrying person B. That change does increase, at least marginally, the number of single-parent families at a given time, but it also means that some of them will become two-parent families again. Similarly, the decline in total number of children--there were about 63 million in 1981, compared with 69 million in 1970-- certainly signals a behavior change. But some of the difference may be accounted for by married couples who would not stay together not having any children; to the extent that is so, we have fewer one-parent families.

Every generation bemoans the decline of the family. Yet in this country, every generation of children has survived and, in time, prospered. The two- parent family with children is not defunct in this country. Far from it. Three-quarters of all children live in families with two parents. Fifty-seven percent of Americans are married and live with their spouses. About two-thirds of all Americans, children and adults, live in households with two married parents. Next time someone tells you that the traditional family has just about disappeared, trot out those statistics. Traditional living patterns are more common still than many people think.