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 

Dizzy and Confused on the Parental Marriage-Go-Round


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


Getting individuals out of bad marriages and into good ones was one of the professed objectives of the progressive activists who pushed permissive no-fault divorce statutes. Never more than an afterthought for these progressive idealists, the children of divorce have suffered a great deal in the world of revolving-door marriages. As the latest evidence of such suffering, a study recently published by researchers from Princeton and New York Universities shows that American children’s well-being typically deteriorates when they experience family instability, particularly when they find themselves moving from a two-parent family into a single-parent family. 

Explaining their motivation for conducting this study, the Princeton and New York scholars remark that “family changes over the past half century have created fundamental shifts in children’s experiences of family life,” as “higher rates of divorce/separation, remarriage/repartnering, nonmarital childbearing, and cohabitation” have radically reordered the world children in the United States live in while growing up.” Nor are the authors of the new study unaware of what their colleagues have already seen in looking at how this reordering has affected children. “Numerous studies,” they write, “find that children who experience a change in family structure lag behind children who grow up in stable family structures across multiple outcomes in different domains.”

But instability in family structure may unfold in a number of different ways. And such instability may start with a two-parent family that fissions or with a single-parent family that transforms into a two-parent (step)family. To measure more carefully the differing effects of family instability when created by different numbers and types of transitions, the authors of this new study scrutinize data collected for 2,952 mother-child pairs in which all of the children were born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 American cities with populations greater than 200,000.

The researchers discern linkages between negative child outcomes and family instability of all kinds. The overall pattern is thus one of “family structure instability ha[ving] a negative effect on children’s cognitive and socioemotional development during early to middle childhood.” The negative impact of family instability on children of this age is particularly worrisome to scholars who view “early to middle childhood as a critical and sensitive period in child development, . . . [a period when] children’s developmental trajectories are the most malleable . . . and, once shaped, may be difficult to reverse at later life stages.” Earlier research has in fact established that “the cognitive and socioemotional skills developed during childhood are strong predictors of life course outcomes, such as academic achievement, health, educational attainment, labor market performance, and union formation.”

However, the Brown and New York scholars warn that assessing the impact of family instability on children simply by counting up the number of family transitions they experience may “lead to misleading conclusions.” Their analysis shows that, in general, “transitions out of a two-parent family are more harmful to children than transitions into a two-parent family,” a conclusion “casting doubt on the claim that all types of instability are equally harmful for children.”

The researchers adduce evidence that family instability can retard both children’s cognitive development and their socioemotional development. To gauge the effect of family instability on children’s development in both realms, the researchers compare it to the effect of maternal education and poverty status, both of which are “universally acknowledged to be consequential for children’s development.” Their statistical analysis reveals that “the effect of family structure instability on cognitive achievement is about one-third the size of the effect of having a mother with high school education (versus college or more) and about one half the size of the effect of being born into a poor household (versus no poverty).”

As evidence of how family instability affects children’s cognitive development, the researchers report that among children who experience the single transition of moving out of a two-parent family and among children who experience multiple transitions (of any sort), they limn a significant fall in scores on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test.  However, they note that “having a father or father figure move into the household does not reduce children’s cognitive achievement. Rather, the signs on the [statistical] coefficients are positive,” significantly so in one line of statistical analysis.

It is also worth noting that, “for cognitive achievement, the impact of transitions out of two-parent families is stronger and more negative for black children and girls.” (Don’t expect that progressives who care nothing about preventing divorce will continue to stop representing themselves as the champions of African Americans and women.)

Family instability may affect children’s cognitive development less than maternal education and poverty, but when the researchers shift their focus to socioemotional development, they find that “the story is different. Family structure instability has a larger effect on children’s externalizing behavior than does maternal education or poverty status, and [has] a comparable effect on children’s internalizing behavior.”

In tracking family instability’s effects on socioemotional development, the researchers—again—need to keep in view the differing effects of differing kinds of family transitions. As they examine various “behavior problems,” the researchers conclude that “the effect of a family structure transition is generally negative regardless of type of move, but typically larger and more significant for moves out of a two-parent family.” 

The bold activists who gave the U.S. its wide-open no-fault divorce laws rarely thought about how those laws would affect children. Given what we now know, it is surely past time to restore some legal integrity to marriage.   

(Dohoon Lee and Sara McLanahan, “Family Structure Transitions and Child Development: Instability, Selection, and Population Heterogeneity,” American Sociological Review 80.4 [2015]: 738-63, emphasis added.)

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