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 

Learning the Wrong Lessons from Parents

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

When children who grow up seeing their parents avoiding or severing wedding vows, they are unlikely to give their own children the security of a successful marriage. Such is the conclusion of researchers at the University of Maryland who have examined the relationship between the family structure of the household in which adolescents grow up and the way those adolescents later approach parenthood themselves.

To assess how childhood family structure affects the way young people approach parenthood, the Maryland scholars parsed data collected between 1988 and 2006 from a sample of 2,949 young adult men and 2,853 young adult women ages 14 to 28. The results look somewhat different for young men than they do for young women.

The data indicate that young men who grow up in an intact family were “much less likely to have become fathers” during the study period, “with nearly 77% still not fathers at age 25.” In contrast, “both young men who grew up with the father never there and those who experienced four or more transitions [in the marital status of their mothers] were far more likely to have become fathers at an early age, with very little difference between these two groups.” The researchers calculate that, compared to peers from intact families, young men “who never lived with a father were 2.8 times as likely to become a father,” while young men who experienced four or more changes in their mothers’ marital status were “about 2.3 times as likely to become fathers,” with young men experiencing one to three changes in their mothers’ marital status were “1.8 times as likely to become fathers.

However, when young men from broken homes become fathers, it is very typically without a wedding band. According to the researchers, “Boys who grew up with a single parent or who experienced instability due to multiple transitions [in their mothers’ marital status] reproduce this pattern when they become parents themselves.” In other words, young men from such backgrounds “have a substantially higher likelihood of entering fatherhood early, but they are less likely to marry and are particularly likely to become nonresidential fathers.”

The Maryland scholars report that, when comparing young men who had experienced four or more changes in their mothers’ marital status with peers who had grown up in an intact family, they found “a reduced speed of transition to married fatherhood.” This pattern suggests that experiencing an upbringing punctuated by changes in a mother’s marital status affects young men in ways that are “especially troublesome for [their] ability to enter into stable parenting relationships.”

The pattern is somewhat different but even more dramatic among young women. “Family structure differences are greater for young women than they are for young men,” the researchers remark, “and the divergence is clear earlier.” Indeed, as they examine data identifying those who have become especially young mothers, the researchers see a large statistical gap separating young women who have grown up in an intact family from peers who have never lived with a father in the likelihood of becoming a young parent separating. What is more, this gap “widened continuously” until the young women reached the age of 22.

Young women were like their male peers in becoming especially young parents if they had seen their mother change her marital status four or more times. However, unlike young men, it was young women “who never lived with their father [who] had the most rapid transition to parenthood.” While living without a father accelerated the transition to both unmarried and married parenthood at statistically significant levels, in fact, “the proportion who married was small.” The scholars interpret the data as evidence that “young women who grew up in single-mother households are more likely to become single mothers themselves” because they have been “socialized into single parenthood.”

Unsettled by their findings, the researchers acknowledge that “growing up without two parents has intergenerational consequences,” and they call for efforts aimed at “breaking the cycle.” Unfortunately, the political orthodoxy of academia prevents them from saying anything helpful about reaffirming wedlock as a cultural ideal. Rather, they merely posit, with dreary predictability, the supposed need for government measures for “breaking the connection between family structure and poverty” through more transfer payments to single parents. The researchers seem to forget that such transfer payments have already given us many, many fatherless homes and many, many mother-state-child families.

(Sandra L. Hofferth and Frances Goldschneider, “Family Structure and the Transition to Early Parenthood,” Demography 47.2 [May 2010]: 415–37.)