The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

No Substitute for Married Parents, Even in Munich

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Some progressive commentators regard a fixation on traditional patterns of family life as evidence of politically retrograde attitudes. After all, they reason, modern social agencies can provide everything that an intact family did in pre-modern times. Such reasoning may look suspect to those familiar with the findings of a psychological study by mental health experts from the German Research Centre for Environmental Health and the Department of Health and Environment for the City of Munich.

The researchers began the study fully aware that if the favorable psychological effects of strong family life were to fade anywhere it would be in a city such as Munich, “a prosperous German city . . . which features high quality of life” and offers “availability of children’s mental health specialists . . . [that is] well above the national average and among the highest in Europe.” This, after all, is a city where “the percentage of children who are at risk of poverty” is just as low as that found in “European countries such as Denmark and Finland, which have the lowest rate of children at risk of poverty in the European Union (10%).” This is a city where “access to health services is almost universal.”

But despite all this prosperity, despite all of the readily available mental-health professionals, children living in this city under the care of single parents face decidedly elevated psychological risks when compared with peers living in intact families. When the researchers compare data collected from 1,265 randomly selected children attending nineteen Munich grade schools, they find clear evidence that family structure affects psychological well-being. In the simplest statistical model, children living in single-parent households were two times as likely as peers living in intact families to manifest symptoms of “borderline or abnormal mental difficulties” (Odds Ratio, 2.0), with particularly elevated risk of such symptoms among girls living in single-parent homes (Odds Ratio, 3.2). “Single parenthood,” the researchers acknowledge, “seems to be associated significantly with the psychological health of the children.”

The psychological vulnerability associated with living in a single-parent home declines somewhat when the researchers deploy more sophisticated statistical models that take into account parents’ educational attainment, household income, parental employment status, and ethnicity. Indeed, when they fully account for the effects of other background variables, the researchers find that “the independent effect of single parenthood disappears for the boys.” However, even after statistically compensating for all of these other background variables, the researchers conclude that the negative psychological effect of living in a single-parent home “remains statistically significant for the girls” in the study, with these girls still nearly two and a half times more likely to manifest symptoms of psychological distress than were girls living in intact families (Odds Ratio, 2.4).

The evidence of psychological distress among girls in Munich should sober the feminist theorists who argue that family structure ceases to matter when mothers can rely on government services. More broadly, progressive theorists who discount the importance of the family need to ponder the researchers’ insistence that their findings establish that “disparities in mental health persist even in a place that, in addition to a high quality of life, also has a particular good coverage of and access to mental health services.” For it is clearly children in broken homes who find themselves on the wrong side of these disparities.

(Laura Perna et. al., “The Impact of the Social Environment on Children’s Mental Health in a Prosperous City: An Analysis with Data from the City of Munich,” BMC Public Health 10 [April 21, 2010]: 199.)