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 

Children Get Stuck in Revolving-Door Families

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

When they live in a stable family, young children are prepared for success and good conduct in school. Young children are primed for failure and disruptive behavior, however, when they live in a protean family that changes shape through divorce, remarriage, and melding with some other fractured family. Such are the sobering implications of a study by sociologist Paula Fomby of the University of Colorado, Denver.

To assess the relationship between young children’s family life and school readiness, Fomby pored over data collected in the United Kingdom for a nationally-representative sample of children born in 2000 and 2001, drawing these data from interviews with parents when the child was nine months, three years, and five years old. Data on the impact of family instability was not lacking, since “about 20 percent of children in the analytic sample had experienced at least one family structure change by [the parent interview when the child was 5].” Of course, changes in family structure—divorce, loss of spouse through death, remarriage, marriage after cohabitation, cohabitation after divorce—are all family transitions.

In any case, Fomby finds in her simplest statistical analysis that “family instability was significantly negatively associated with each domain of cognitive achievement.” More specifically, Fomby found that among children born to married parents, “each family structure transition . . . predicted picture-similarities score by nearly one point (p < 0.05) and reduced children’s naming vocabulary scores and pattern construction scores by more than two points (p < 0.001).”

Nor is it just children’s cognitive abilities that are affected by family instability. Such instability also affects children’s emotional well-being and behavioral discipline. Fomby reports that in her simplest statistical models, “family instability is positively associated with a child’s emotion symptoms and conduct problems (p < 0.001).” More particularly, Fomby calculates that among children born to married parents, every family-structure transition translates into an increase in emotion-symptoms score of approximately 13 percent and a rise in conduct-problems score of about 18 percent.

Of course, family stability does not mean the same thing for a child born to a single mother or a cohabiting couple that it means to a child born to married parents. In fact, Fomby establishes that “being born to cohabiting parents or a single parent had independent negative effects on each domain of cognitive achievement on the order of one-third to one-half of a standard deviation (p < 0.001)” (emphasis added). And, quite understandably, Fomby found that among children born to single mothers, “subsequent family structure transitions were less consequential for children’s naming vocabulary and pattern-construction scores, supporting the contention that the effect of subsequent family change depends on one’s starting point.”

Data from children born to cohabiting parents further clarify the way a household’s starting point influences the effect of subsequent family change. Indeed, Fomby reports that “such children who experienced later family change appeared to have better verbal ability than those whose parents remained in a cohabiting union.” Apparently, for children born in the social pit of cohabitation, family change is better than family stability.

Fomby tested her initial findings by re-running her data through a multivariate statistical model taking into various account the individual characteristics of the mothers and children. In this more sophisticated model, some of the linkages between family instability lost statistical significance as the consequence of the distinctive poverty and educational deprivation of the households experiencing family instability.

However, even in this multivariate model, Fomby still limned a significant connection between family instability and children’s verbal skills, with “each family structure transition associated with about a one-point decrease in a child’s predicted naming vocabulary score.” Also persistent in this model was the linkage between family instability and children’s behavioral problems, with “a significant (p < 0.05) positive association between family instability and children’s conduct problems remain[ing] in the full model such that each family structure transition a child experienced increased a child’s predicted conduct problems score by about six percent.”

Fomby interprets her findings as “consistent” with previous studies, which have also shown that “family instability is associated with children’s verbal ability and conduct problems in early and middle childhood.” Seeing her own study as part of a larger pattern, Fomby remarks:

The persistent association of family instability with children’s conduct problems and verbal ability calls out for a theoretical focus that can address why the behaviors and skills that enable children to communicate effectively and productively with peers and adults are compromised in the context of family instability.

For Americans who care about the well-being of children, what this study—and others like it—most insistently calls for is a renewed cultural and policy focus on the kind of enduring marriages that promise children a stable family life. 

(Paula Fomby, “Family Instability and School Readiness in the United Kingdom,” Family Science 2.3 [March 12, 2011]: 171–85.)