The implications of family structure for child wellbeing have been a central topic of research for several decades. In its simplest form, it is the comparison between two parent and one parent families that is the root of concern for child wellbeing. Children who live with two married parents are defined in most government statistics as living in two parent families, whereas children who live with just one biological parent due to death, divorce, or having never married have been considered to live in single parent families. However, the issue is much more complex, and trends in family structure among American children over recent decades make it increasingly necessary to specify the biological and social relationships between children and the adults in their lives in order to understand the implications for child wellbeing.
The most highly researched areas of child wellbeing in the context of family structure include socioemotional wellbeing, such as aggressive behavior problems and emotional distress; academic outcomes, such as math and reading scores; economic wellbeing, such as family poverty; and life course and intergenerational outcomes, such as low weight at birth, educational achievement, and offspring’s own marital stability and quality in adulthood.
This entry focuses primarily on family structure and child wellbeing in industrialized countries, and particularly in the US. The implications of family structure for children in other countries may differ to the extent that family and child policies also differ, cultural definitions of family differ, and the patterns of family structure differ, among other factors.
Since the family is a primary setting for the care and socialization of children, it is of interest to both scholars and the general public that an increasing proportion of children have been growing up with a single parent, although this trend may be leveling off. In 1960, about 9 percent of all children lived in a single parent family in the US; this percentage was up to 28 percent in 2003, with 68 percent living in married parent families. Both estimates have remained within 2 percentage points in each year since 1994.
In the 1970s, divorce replaced parental death as the primary cause of single parent families. It is estimated that about four in ten children will eventually experience their parents’ divorce. However, divorce is only one factor contributing to estimates that about half of all children are expected to reside with a single parent at some point during their childhood. More recently, the increased proportion of births to unmarried women has also contributed. In 1970, 11 percent of children were born to unmarried couples. By 2002, about one in three births occurred outside of marriage. Contrary to popular perceptions, teenagers account for less than three in ten non-marital births, with women in their twenties accounting for more than half. Of recent interest are non-marital births of second or higher order parity. Only about half of all non-marital births were first births in 1998. Between 1992 and 1995, more than one in three non-marital births to women aged 20 or older were preceded by a teenage birth. There is a growing recognition that multiple births to the same woman may not be births by the same father.
An unmarried parent is not necessarily a parent without a partner. In the early 1990s, 39 percent of all non-marital births occurred to cohabiting couples, up from 29 percent ten years earlier. A national study places this at 51 percent, based on a survey of mothers who gave birth in large cities between 1998 and 2000. According to this survey (the Fragile Families Study), the majority of non-marital births (82 percent) are to parents who are romantically involved at the time of birth, either in a cohabiting or a visiting relationship. All in all, about 40 percent of all children are expected to spend some portion of their childhoods living with cohabiting parents, and cohabitation has become an increasingly recognized family form. Living in a stepfamily is also a common experience. About half of current marriages are actually a second or higher marriage for at least one of the spouses. About one in three children will spend some of their childhood living in a remarried or cohabiting stepfamily. These social changes are also apparent in people’s attitudes. Acceptance of cohabitation and non-marital childbearing, as measured in public opinion surveys, has increased since the 1960s–1970s, although having a birth out of wedlock is still not viewed as a positive goal. This pattern is consistent with research that examines how single parent families are depicted in popular magazines. Portrayals of single parent families as unacceptable or negative for children have declined over time.
After decades of increase, accepting attitudes toward divorce have stabilized, although the plateau of acceptance is quite high. About four of every five young people believe that divorce is acceptable even if children are involved. At the same time, ‘‘having a good marriage and family life’’ was rated as extremely important to 81 percent of females and 72 percent of males who were high school seniors in 1997 and 1998.
A child’s family structure is often viewed in terms of the child’s connections to the parent figures in the household. It is notable, however, that 8 percent of all children resided with a grandparent in 2002, most of whom were the heads of households.
Implications of Family Structure
For some, having children within marriage and preserving the sanctity of marriage are essential societal functions. Others argue for the importance of marriage based on research indicating that married adults tend to be wealthier, healthier, live longer, and have more social support than unmarried adults. Others argue that changes in family structure are inevitable and represent ‘‘new’’ family forms that are not necessarily inferior family forms for raising children. Still others take a policy perspective, arguing that reducing the number of single parent families would reduce the economic burden on the taxpayer, and this is a goal of current welfare reform law. Despite this disagreement, at the heart of these concerns, and cutting across many different perspectives, is the well-being of children.
Research on family structure is consistent: the majority of children who are not raised by both biological parents manage to grow up without serious problems. Yet, on average, children in single parent families, children who experience divorce, and children who live in stepfamilies all experience worse outcomes, on average, compared with children who are brought up with both biological parents.
There are many possible explanations for these patterns. A stressful life events perspective posits that family structure transitions cause instability in family routines and therefore are detrimental to both parental and child well-being. Indeed, multiple family transitions themselves increase a child’s risk of negative outcomes. A parental absence perspective suggests that biological parents are the most likely to provide social and economic resources to their own children, and therefore the absence of a parent puts children at risk of diminished well-being. A selection perspective suggests that the characteristics that predate family transitions are actually responsible for negative effects. An economic resources perspective would posit that children are at a greater risk of living in poverty and having poor outcomes when they do not have access to two parents – in part due to the economies of scale involved in maintaining one household as compared to two. Indeed, compared to children who live with two married parents, those whose parents divorce are more prone to academic and behavior problems, including depression, anti-social behavior, impulsive/hyperactive behavior, academic achievement, and school behavior problems. Mental health problems linked to marital disruption have also been identified among young adults. These findings are consistent across many outcomes and many studies; however, there are also many caveats.
Advances in data collection, namely longitudinal surveys that collect data on the same children over multiple time points, have shown that many of the problems that are observed in children post-divorce can actually be attributed to pre divorce factors – this is often referred to as selection bias. For example, parents with anti-social personalities are more likely to both administer poor parenting and also divorce, and therefore the observed relationship between divorce and child well-being is due, in part, to parental characteristics. Using longitudinal, national survey data, Andrew Cherlin and colleagues (1991) demonstrated that much of the difference in well-being scores between children of divorced and intact families is apparent prior to the date of divorce.
Numerous studies indicate that parental conflict is detrimental to child wellbeing, and a handful of studies measuring both divorce and marital quality have shown that children from high conflict families are better off on a number of outcomes when their parents divorce rather than remain married. However, it has been estimated that fewer divorces are preceded by high conflict than are preceded by low conflict. It is also noteworthy that the differences between children of divorced and intact couples, although arguably small at about one fifth of a standard deviation, tend to remain significant, even after accounting for important pre divorce factors. Further, due to the variability in the capacity of children and families to cope with divorce, this average ‘‘small’’ effect likely masks larger effects among certain subgroups of children.
An additional advance in research on children of divorce is the investigation of outcomes that might occur later over the life course when they are adults. For example, research has shown that children whose parents divorce are more likely to experience divorce themselves as adults, to have increased marital problems and lower socioeconomic achievement, and to report poorer subjective well-being.
Stepchildren also do not do as well, on average, as children living with both biological parents. A review of the literature suggests that, on average, stepchildren have lower grades and scores on achievement tests, and have greater internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. They fare worse in terms of dropout rates, school attendance, and high school or GED completion. Similar to explanations for the effects of divorce on children, researchers often posit that the stress of reorganizing as a stepfamily is an important reason for these differences. Children often move to new cities and possibly lower quality schools; children in stepfamilies have likely experienced a number of other family changes; and conflict might still exist between the child’s original two parents. In addition, children in stepfamilies are found to have less access to parental involvement than children living with two biological parents. Not only might a child’s biological parent be distracted and focus attention on her/his new spouse, but stepparents tend to spend less time with stepchildren than biological children, and relationships with absent biological parents, namely fathers, tend to diminish with time.
Children in single parent families are about twice as likely to have problems as children who live in intact families headed by two biological parents. Children born to unmarried mothers are more likely to be poor, to grow up in a single parent family, and to experience multiple living arrangements during childhood. These factors, in turn, are associated with lower educational attainment and a higher risk of teen and non-marital childbearing.
It is important to note that the implications of single parent family structure can differ for children in other countries. For example, single parenthood has been found to be less detrimental for children’s academic achievement in countries where family policies equalize resources between single and two parent families.
Changes Over Time and Contemporary Research Issues
The study of family structure and child out comes has paralleled the changing demographic trends in children’s families. Research has shifted from a focus on the effects of divorce on children to an increasing focus on the diversity of family structures, especially those other than the biological two parent family as a set ting for bearing and raising children.
As described above, the majority of non-marital births are to couples who are romantically involved at the time of the birth. While most unmarried couples have plans to stay together and get married around the time of the birth of their child, one year later only 9 percent were actually found to marry, while another 49 per cent of parents continued to be romantically involved. In general, cohabiting relationships are more likely to break up than marriages. Parents of children in cohabiting unions typically have lower earnings, lower levels of education, higher rates of poverty, and elevated rates of incarceration, substance use, and domestic violence, compared with parents of children in married couple families. In addition, their children may not have full legal access to paternal resources. We would expect that these characteristics would undermine child wellbeing compared with married parent families. On the other hand, cohabitation might incur greater economic resources for children than single parent families, but there is as yet little documentation of whether and how cohabitors share their resources. Overall, we know very little about actual child outcomes in relation to cohabitation, although a recent study documents significantly fewer behavior problems and greater school engagement among school age children living with two biological married parents compared to children living with two biological cohabiting parents.
As divorce has become more common, so has the study of how custody after divorce affects children. It is not clear whether joint physical custody of children is beneficial, and frequency of father visitation is not consistently linked with better child well-being. While more work is needed, some research suggests that contact with a non-resident father is beneficial when conflict between parents is low or when the nonresident father is warm but sets limits in his parenting.
Gay marriage and family life has received much attention, but research on gay families is still in development. Census questions in 1990 and 2000 included categories that made it possible for researchers to identify same and different sex couples in ‘‘marriage like’’ relationships, but even these are not direct measures, and the census data do not include child outcome assessments. It is rare for any national data set to collect information on gay couples, let alone match it to children in the household. Nonetheless, in the 2000 Census, approximately one third of female householders with same sex partners were living with their own children, and about one fifth of male house holders with same sex partners were living with their own children. Marriage between same sex partners gained particular relevance in 2004 and attempts were made to confine marriage to heterosexual couples as a constitutional amendment. In terms of child development, rigorous research on representative samples is lacking.
There are at least three clear methodological issues in the study of how family structure affects child outcomes. First, addressing selection bias is perhaps the most critical issue. Longitudinal data are critical here.
A second critical methodological element is that when children experience one family structure outside of the traditional married two parent family, they typically experience multiple changes. Therefore, it becomes difficult to disentangle the effects of previous family transitions, such as divorce, from the effects of current family structure, such as a stepfamily.
Third, data quality has not ‘‘caught up’’ with the many different types of family structures in which children live. Knowing a mother’s marital status is not enough information to determine whether she is living with her child’s father, or whether all children in the house hold share the same father. It has become increasingly critical to understand the biological connection of that child to the people in the household, as well as the marital status of that child’s parents, and also the timing of parental marital/cohabiting/dating transitions. While this seems straightforward, there are very few data sets that collect such information (for an exception, see the Survey of Income and Program Participation), and it is even more of a rarity for child outcomes to be assessed in the same data source.
Further development is also necessary to accurately measure parental cohabitation. For example, couples who are living together do not necessarily identify with the terms ‘‘cohabiting’’ or ‘‘unmarried partner’’ on questionnaires.
The family context for childrearing in the US is changing. Significant proportions of children will spend time living in single parent families, families headed by cohabiting biological parents, or families headed by their biological parent and a cohabiting or married stepparent, and will experience transitions in their family structure in general.
With regard to child wellbeing, it will be important to examine how cohabiting biological parents rear their children and how children in cohabiting families fare relative to others. A point of departure for this inquiry is to assume that cohabiting biological parents provide the same home environments for their children as married biological parents, but empirical evidence is not definitive with regard to this assumption. Empirical evidence is also lacking in regards to children whose parents may not reside together but remain romantically involved.
The past two decades of research have shown that there is diversity in how children adjust to divorce. Understanding the conditions under which children adjust poorly or successfully to divorce, and disruption in general, is an important next step. In the same vein, most research on the effects of family disruption examine potential negative effects. Qualitative research suggests that there also may be positive implications of divorce transitions. Systematically testing this possibility could help inform the knowledge base of the conditions under which children might adjust well to family disruption.
While children in one parent families typically have fewer economic and social resources at their disposal than do children in two parent families, accumulating evidence warns that socioeconomic inequality for children in these two family structures is growing. This is due in part to the rise in dual earner families. For the sake of child well-being, it will be important to monitor this trend.
Child outcomes with regard to the structure of siblings in the household are also likely to be a topic of continued research interest. Some research suggests that paternal investments in children may depend upon whether the children in his household are his own, his wife’s, or a combination of both.
With federal funding targeted at experimental evaluations of interventions to improve the marital quality and stability of low income couples, a much anticipated topic of future research is whether an intervention can improve marital stability and quality among low income families. If such an intervention is successful at improving child wellbeing, this would be a significant milestone. However, low income couples face many challenges to marital stability, such as inadequate employment and economic hardship. Further, most research showing evidence that couple interventions can affect relationship stability has been targeted towards white, middle class samples. The same is true for the development of marital quality measures. Therefore, a great deal of research is needed to answer the question of whether an intervention can improve marital stability and quality and enhance child well-being in low income families.
Pregnancy intentions have been monitored for decades as indicators of control over fertility and the need for reproductive health services. Moreover, the implications for children of being mistimed or unwanted has received increased attention; but more work is needed. In addition, the effect of having unintended or unwanted pregnancies on marriage and family formation more generally, as well as on marital disruption or family disruption, needs further examination with data from males as well as females. What are the implications of different levels of intendedness for each partner? How does pregnancy intendedness affect male commitment to their partner and investments in the child? Under what circumstances do unintended pregnancies undermine couple stability? Finally, there is a need for research on the implications of infertility and new fertility technologies for family formation and stability.
Long overlooked is systematic investigation of family processes and child wellbeing in non-white families. Studies in the past decade have made strides towards describing fathering and gender roles, particularly in African American and Hispanic families, and also describing how parenting is shaped by grandparents and neighborhood context. Further high quality longitudinal studies are needed, not only for high risk families of color, but also for families of color in general. Further highlighting the need to pay attention to race and ethnicity is the fact that immigrant children are the fastest growing segment of the child population, up by over 50 percent in the last decade.
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