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 

Excluded from Extracurriculars

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Participation in an extracurricular activity—swimming on the high-school swim team, for example, or singing in a church choir—can greatly enrich a young person’s life. Unfortunately, many young people now find themselves in circumstances that make such participation nearly impossible. Why? According to a study by sociologists at Arizona State University and St. Louis Community College, family fragmentation has become a serious impediment to many adolescents’ participation in extracurricular activities.

Their study of extracurricular activities draws on data collected in 1998 and 1999 from a nationally representative sample of youth and parents, and highlights the importance of family structure in determining whether teens can participate in such activities. The researchers limn the same pattern whether looking at extracurriculars sponsored by their school (such as involvement in sports, in band, in theater, or in school-based service clubs) or at extracurriculars independent of the school (such as involvement in a church youth group, in scouting, or in private music lessons). Youth living in single-parent households (mostly mother-only households) are distinctly “less likely to be involved” than are peers from intact two-parent families (p<.05 for school-based extracurriculars; p<.001 for extracurriculars independent of the school).

In “the finding that children from mom-only families are less likely to participate” in extracurriculars than are their peers from intact families, the authors see evidence that “single mothers may look to their children for help in activities such as housework and sibling care and that children from such families are more likely to have a constellation of negative outcomes.”

The negative outcomes the researchers have in view come into focus as they survey previous research showing that “extracurricular involvement is associated with greater academic achievement and school satisfaction, better social adjustment and higher self-concepts, greater levels of high-school completion, and less engagement in delinquent acts.” Given the prevalence of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing, it is particularly disconcerting that children from broken homes are missing out on the extracurricular participation that social scientists now know “lowers the rates of violent juvenile crime.”

(Amanda M. White and Constance T. Gager, “Idle Hands and Empty Pockets? Youth Involvement in Extracurricular Activities, Social Capital, and Economic Status,” Youth & Society 39 [2007]: 75–111, emphasis added.)