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 

Parents Too Soon

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Who ends up a 16-year-old and typically unmarried mother? Who ends up a 17-year-old and typically absent father? A study by demographers at the University of Maryland identifies teens reared by a single parent or traumatized by a series of parental divorces as the young people most likely bound for premature parenthood.

Scrutinizing national data collected between 1979 and 2006, the Maryland scholars find that when a young person becomes a parent at a troublingly young age, his or her own family of origin is typically a fractured one. When using their simplest statistical researchers, the researchers conclude that “the effects of childhood family structure were similar for women and men.”

Outlining a pattern that looks quite similar among boys, the researchers note that “girls who never lived with a father or who lived with several father figures are more likely to transition to motherhood early, both to single and to married (but not cohabiting) motherhood.” The data indicate that young women “who never lived with their father had the most rapid transition to parenthood,” while being reared “in a family with four or more transitions was linked with the next most rapid transition to motherhood.” Turning their attention to boys who become young parents, the Maryland scholars calculate that “those who never lived with a father were 2.8 times as likely [as peers in intact families] to become a [pre-adult] father, those who experienced four or more transitions were about 2.3 times as likely to become [pre-adult] fathers, and those experiencing one to three transitions were 1.8 times as likely to become [pre-adult] fathers.”

The researchers discern a general pattern of congruence in the way a fractured family propels young men into early fatherhood and the way such a family pushes young women toward early motherhood. However, some gender differences do show up in the researchers’ most sophisticated statistical models. To begin with, “family structure differences are greater for young women, and the divergence is clear earlier.” And, of course, the boys who become premature fathers are much more likely than their female counterparts to become “nonresidential” parents.

Understandably, the authors of the study stress that “growing up without two parents has intergenerational consequences. Young men who experienced substantial instability growing up are themselves more likely to experience disrupted fathering and go on to become absent fathers. Girls apparently do not learn appropriate relationship skills if they grow up in families without their fathers, even if the family structure is stable, and this leads them to rear children in such families themselves.”

The Maryland scholars believe it is past time for “breaking the cycle” of intergenerational family dysfunction. In particular, they call for measures “breaking the connection between family structure and poverty” and for programs fostering better “parenting skills.” Affirming abiding marital commitments as a social ideal is apparently just too radical for politically correct scholars to contemplate.

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