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 

Fatherless Toddlers, Speechless Toddlers


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


A growing mountain of research sometimes compels progressives to acknowledge that children suffer when parents separate. Complicit in the attitudes and public policies that foster such separation, progressives typically respond to this research by arguing that the problem is simply economic. Children suffer when parents separate, they argue, because a single mother lacks sufficient financial resources. A sufficiently generous welfare state will wipe tears from all faces. Such finance-focused thinking fails, however, to explain the results of a recent Belgian study, completed by scholars at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. In this compelling new study, researchers conclude that even after they make systemic statistical adjustments for differences in economic status, young children whose parents have separated lag behind peers from intact families in their psychomotor development, perhaps most notably in their speech.

As the authors of the new study begin their research into the effects of family structure on young children’s psychomotor development, they do so cognizant of twenty-first-century data indicating that 20% of all Belgian children ages 0 to 16 live in a single-parent or blended family.  While this percentage is high enough to warrant concern about family disintegration, it is—as the researchers note—significantly lower than the “approximately 26% of young Americans . . . living with only one of their parents in 2014.”

To gauge the impact of parental separation on the psychomotor development of children ages 28 to 32 months, the researchers parse data collected between 2006 and 2012 from 28,871 children, all participants in a free preventive-medicine consultation. To determine their level of psychomotor development, the researchers asked all of these children to complete six tasks: “to perform a standing jump, dress themselves, draw a vertical line and circle, use the ‘I’ pronoun, build a three-word sentence, and say their first name.” Because they specifically want to know how parental separation affects these children, the researchers analyze their data for these six tasks in statistical models that adjust for the possible effects of socioeconomic environment—as well as the possible effects of background variables such as maternal age and education, home language, child’s birth weight, and child participation in day care. After statistically screening out all of these potential influences, the researchers discern a clear pattern: “we observed that the children exhibited slower progression in psychomotor development, especially in language and graphic ability, when their parents were separated.”

When compared (with all statistical adjustments) to children living with both parents, children whose parents had separated were significantly less likely to be able to draw a vertical line, draw a circle, use the “I” pronoun, or build a three-word sentence (p values of < 0.001, < 0.001, < 0.003, and < 0.001 respectively).

The researchers interpret their finding in the context of a New York study which showed “paternal involvement to have a positive impact on language acquisition” among children ages 24 to 36 months. Also relevant, in the Belgian scholars’ view, was a British study concluding that “children aged 0 to 8 years who were exposed to parental separation produced poorer results for language, reading, writing, and drawing tests following adjustment for sociocultural environment.” And in their own country, Belgium, the researchers note that a previous “cross-sectional study conducted in 7- to 11-month-old infants . . . [likewise] observed a significant correlation between delayed psychomotor development and parental separation.”

Seeking to tease out the implications of their own findings, the authors of the new study point to earlier “studies . . . [that] have demonstrated the positive impact of breastfeeding for at least 6 months on the psychomotor development of children during the first 5 years of life,” adding pertinently that “other studies have revealed a relationship between maternal marital status and breastfeeding.”

Whether or not deficits in breastfeeding help account for them, the delays in psychomotor skills among children with separated parents worry the researchers, who believe these delays entail “a huge impact in terms of public health issues.” After all, previous researchers have clearly established that, “in comparison with other children, those exhibiting developmental delays at preschool age were more exposed during their lifetime to poorer health conditions, socio-economical problems, as well as social isolation.” 

Progressives may, once again, rush forward with assurances that welfare-state largesse can solve the problems their marriage-weakening policies have helped incubate. But the authors of the new study pointedly remark that their results signal a need “to revise our commonly-held assumption that the less-than-optimal development of children with separated parents is due solely to a more economically precarious environment.”  

Regardless of their size, welfare checks are a bad substitute for an intact family.

(Nadine Kacenelenbogen et al., “Parental Separation: A Risk for the Psychomotor Development of Children Aged 28 to 32 Months? A Cross-Sectional Study,” BMC Pediatrics 16 [2016]: 89, Web.)

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