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Are You Totally Screwed If Your Parents Aren’t Together?

Studies have found that growing up without two parents can hurt kids in all sorts of ways. Should we take those findings at face value?

by Arielle Pardes
22 December 2014, 6:00am

The world's most famous unconventional family—a mother, her son, and a man who decided to raise her kid as his own. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It's really easy to blame things on your parents. Your widow's peak, passive-aggressive tendencies, weirdly shaped eyebrows—are all things you probably inherited from mom and dad. ( Thanks, guys!) It's also easy to blame them for your psychological failings, especially if your parents aren't together. There's been a whole slew of research this year about how unmarried parents fuck up their children: Kids raised by unmarried parents have been found to make less money, they have emotional and behavioral problems twice as often, they're even supposedly more likely to be fat.

This month a new study from Princeton and Harvard, which explored " what happens to children of unmarried mothers," found that more than half of all children would live with a single mom at some point. "The absence of a biological father increases the likelihood that a child will exhibit antisocial behaviors like aggression, rule-breaking and delinquency,"summarized a press release. "This finding—which holds true regardless of a child's race—is especially prevalent among young boys. As a result, these children are 40 percent less likely to finish high school or attend college." Well, that's not very good! Should we get all these women married off?

Dr. Paula Fomby, who studies family instability at the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center, confirms that children whose biological parents are married do see benefits in health, school performance, social behavior, and even wealth. "But if you star to unpack that," Fomby added, "you'll find that there are some pretty systematic explanations for why those patterns occur."

It works like this: Children do better in households where their parents are wealthier and more loving, and those households happen to be correlated with married people. Marriage today is a self-selecting institution, Fomby explained—people who get married tend to be older, better educated, and have higher incomes than those who decide not to tie the knot. So if your parents are married, then you're also more likely to be in a family unit that has more resources, which obviously helps your mental wellbeing as a kid. Family structure doesn't really have anything to do with it.

OK, so marital status doesn't really matter. But I wondered if there was some truth to the idea that single parenting, specifically, screws kids up. Fomby explained that living in a two-income household makes it easier to afford things that contribute to childhood success (like education, for example), and other resources—time, parental involvement, love—are also more plentiful when there are two people raising a child. But you don't have to be married, or even in a romantic relationship, to reap that two-person benefit; having grandparents, aunts, uncles, or even older siblings around helps, too. (Not that anyone needs a professor to tell them that.)

Another thing that positively affects childhood outcomes is family stability—basically, whether or not your family structure changes, and how many times. If your parents divorce, then remarry, then divorce again, that's a lot of instability, which can contribute to things like developmental delays. But if your parents were never married and they stay single throughout your childhood, that's considered extremely stable.

What's interesting about that is that it debunks the idea that single parenting is always worse. "It's not to say that there isn't some effect of residing with a single parent," cautioned Fomby, "but that we should question the assumption that if you're with a single parent, the best thing to do would be to get out of that and get into a coupled relationship, since that transition may come at some cost to a child."

So why don't headlines—and the studies that generate them—focus on stability rather than a crude thing like marital status? Fomby says it's due to the kind of data that's available. Most of these studies lean on large, national surveys—like the Census—to make their analyses. The problem is, that data is pretty simplistic. The Census Bureau asks people if they're "married," "divorced," or "single, never married," which doesn't leave a whole lot of room to explain things like "unmarried by cohabiting," or "married but polyamorous," or "single, but with a whole community of relatives helping to raise my kids." The marriage question gives a pretty narrow picture of what relationships, and families, look like. And we're not even sure if these categories matter—right now, the Census Bureau is debating eliminating the questions about marriage and divorce altogether, since it isn't convinced that the question is "relevant."

Maybe there's something to that. The modern American family is, if nothing else, complicated: More than 40 percent of kids today grow up with a step-sibling, same-sex parenting is on the rise, and there are a million ways to have a kid without a partner at all. (Pretty soon, you may be able to have a baby with yourself.) It's nice to know that not all of those kids are going to grow up warped simply because they don't have an official mother and father.

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