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 

Fractured at Five

Some progressive social theorists have argued that it is family disruption, not family structure, that matters for children’s well-being.  But a study of five-year-old children recently completed at Columbia University and Connecticut College indicates that although family disruption does hurt young children, family structure—regardless of stability—matters a great deal.

Attempting to untangle the effects of family structure and those of family stability, the researchers scrutinize data collected from a diverse sample of 3,676 children living in 20 American cities.  These data allow the researchers to distinguish “between at-birth and contemporaneous family structure effects in order to examine whether the family structure a child is born into continues to affect wellbeing and development” in the first five years after birth.

The researchers report that the children born to married parents enjoy clear advantages over children born to unmarried parents.  The researchers limn “a substantial marriage premium” for children born to married parents, a premium evident in “outcomes encompassing cognitive, behavioural, and health domains.”  “Children of unmarried parents,” the researchers note, “are . . . significantly more prone [than peers born to married parents] to anxiety/depressive symptoms, aggressive behaviours, obesity, and asthma by age five.”

The researchers adduce clear evidence “that family structure at birth is strongly linked to the outcomes of children, even up to five years old,” so strongly linked that even when the researchers run the data through a statistical model incorporating “an extensive set of controls in the at-birth family structure model, the marriage premium remains statistically significant.”  

When the researchers shift their focus from family structure at birth to family structure when children are five, the basic pattern remains the same.  The researchers report, “Living with married parents at age five is associated with a significant advantage in cognitive, behavioural, and health outcomes.”  In fact, when the researchers use a statistical model that takes into account the family structure that children are living in at age five—as well as demographic, regional, and other background variables—they find that the at-birth marriage benefit disappears for some child outcomes (including cognitive development and asthma).  Nonetheless, even in this sophisticated statistical model “the effect of at-birth family structure persists for child behavioural problems [aggressive behavior and anxious/depressive symptoms] and obesity in five-year-old children.” 

Clearly, children are affected by both family structure and family stability.  So it is entirely predictable that five-year-olds will fare best when their parents are not only married when they are born but when they subsequently stay married.  “Living with stably married parents,” the researchers emphasize, “is associated with the highest premium in cognitive scores and the lowest level of behavioural problems among five-year-old children.”  

Progressives who emphasize family stability rather than family structure will find evidence in this study that “instability from divorce, remarriage, and even marriage after the child’s birth yields worse outcomes relative to stable marriages,” outcomes that the researchers explain as the consequence of “social stress, residential instability, and instability in social networks.”  Nonetheless, the researchers stress that, “relative to stable marriage, single-parenthood (regardless of stability) is associated with higher levels of child aggressive behaviours and obesity.”  What is more, “children in stable non-traditional as well as unstable families have more anxious/depressive symptoms relative to children of stably married parents.”

In their summative conclusion, the researchers unfold a clear pattern: “Children of stably married parents appear to have at least some advantage in their cognitive, behavioural, and health development relative to children raised in other stable and unstable family structures.”

As much as progressives would like to take comfort in the mantra of stability, it is clear that children need the structure of an intact parental marriage.

(Terry-Ann L. Craigie, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Jane Waldfogel, “Family Structure, Family Stability, and Outcomes of Five-Year-Old Children,” Families, Relationship, and Societies 1.1 [2012]: 43-61, emphasis added.)