Why Marriage Matters: Married Parents - What Every Child Needs
Article posted on 5/6/2008
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When society debates what children need to grow into healthy, happy, productive, well-adjusted adults, many things are listed as essentials: good healthcare, nutrition, schools, neighborhoods, love and plenty of encouragement. All of these are important proper child-development, but the discussion often ignores the one factor than can do more than any other: marital status of parents.
Children with married parents consistently do better in every measure of well-being than their peers who have single, cohabiting, divorced or step-parents and this is stronger indicator than parental race, economic or educational status and neighborhood. The literature on this is very strong.
Pitirim Sorokin, founder and first chair of the Sociology Department at Harvard, proclaimed the importance of married parents some fifty years ago.
The most essential sociocultural patterning of a newborn human organism is achieved by the family. It is the first and most efficient sculptor of human material, shaping the physical, behavioral, mental, moral and sociocultural characteristics of practically every individual. …From remotest past, married parents have been the most effective teachers of their children.1
Sara McLanahan of Princeton University, one of the world’s leading scholars on the implications of single-parent families, finds that "regardless of which survey we looked at, children from one-parent families are about twice as likely to drop out of school as children from two-parent families."2
But family composition is also a strong indicator of how well a child performs while he is at school. Children from biological two-parent families on average have test scores and grade-point averages that are higher, they miss fewer school days, and have greater expectations of attending college than children living with one parent. Additionally, of those from either type of family who do attend college, those from two-parent families are 7 to 20 percent more likely to finish college.3
Children from divorced homes are 70 percent more likely than those living with biological parents to be expelled or suspended from school. Those living with never-married mothers are twice as likely to be expelled or suspended. Also, children who do not live with both biological parents are 45 to 95 percent more likely to require parent/teacher meetings to deal with performance or behavior problems than those who live with both parents.4
Young men without married parents are 1.5 times more likely than those with married parents to be out of school and out of work. Young girls without married parents are twice as likely to be idle.5
Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, in their book, A General Theory on Crime, explain, "Such family measures as the percentages of the population divorced, the percentages of households headed by women, and the percentage of unattached individuals in the community are among the most powerful predictors of crime rates."6
The Progressive Policy Institute, the research arm of the Democratic Leadership Council, reports that the "relationship between crime and one-parent families" is "so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low-income and crime. This conclusion shows up time and again in the literature."7
E. Mavis Hetherington at the University of Virginia found that girls who lost their fathers due to death were more sexually withdrawn. Those who lost their fathers due to divorce were more sexually aggressive and sought the attention of males.8
Sara McLanahan found that white and black girls growing up in single-parent homes are 111 percent more likely to bear children as teenagers, 164 percent more likely to have a child out of marriage, and – if they do marry – their marriages are 92 percent more likely to dissolve compared to their counterparts in two-parent families.9
Historically, poverty has been a result of unemployment and low wages. Today, it is primarily a result of family structure. David Ellwood, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, notes:
The vast majority of children who are raised entirely in a two-parent home will never be poor during childhood. By contrast, the vast majority of children who spend time in a single-parent home will experience poverty.10
The Progressive Policy Institute declares, "It is no exaggeration to say that a stable, two-parent family is an American child’s best protection against poverty."11
Physical Health and Mental Well-Being
Ronald Angel and Jacqueline Worobey, two leading scholars on the impact of family configuration upon child health, find that single mothers report poorer overall physical health for their children than do mothers in intact marriages, regardless of racial or ethnic status.12
Dr. Deborah A. Dawson of the National Center for Health Statistics, found that children living with their biological parents received professional help for behavior and psychological problems at half the rate of children not living with both biological parents.13 Other studies show the general health problems of children from broken homes is increased by 20 to 30 percent, even when adjusting for demographic variables.14
Dr. Judith Wallerstein, a leading authority on the long-term effects of divorce, found that serious emotional and relational problems follow children of divorce into adulthood.15 Dr. Nicholas Zill, writing in the Journal of Family Psychology, agrees. He found that children of divorce showed "high levels of emotional distress, or problem behavior, [and were more likely] to have received psychological help."16
A more thorough treatment of this topic is given in Glenn T. Stanton’s Why Marriage Matters: Reasons to Believe in Marriage in Postmodern Society (Colorado Springs: Pinon Press, 1997).
1. Pitirim Sorokin, Society, Culture, and Personality (New York: Harper and Row, 1947), pp. 246-247; The American Sex Revolution (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1956), p. 5.
2. Sara McLanahan Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 19.
3. McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994, p. 47.
4. Deborah Dawson, "Family Structure and Children’s Health and Well-Being: Data from the 1988 National Health Interview Survey on Child Health," Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991): 573-584.
5. McLanahan and Sandefur, p. 50.
6. Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, A General Theory of Crime (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 103.
7. Elaine Kamarck and William Galston, "Putting Children First: A Progressive Family Policy for the 1990s," whitepaper from the Progressive Policy Institute (September 27, 1990), pp. 14-15.
8. E. Mavis Hetherington, "Effects of Father Absence on Personality Development in Adolescent Daughters," Developmental Psychology 7 (1972): 313-326.
9. Irwin Garfinkel and Sara McLanahan, Single Mothers and Their Children: A New American Dilemma (Washington D.C.: The Urban Institute Press, 1986), pp. 30-31.
10. David Ellwood, Poor Support: Poverty in the American Family (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 46.
11. Kamarck and Galston, 1990, p. 12.
12. Ronald J. Angel and Jacqueline Worobey, "Single Motherhood and Children’s Health," Journal of Health and Social Behavior 29 (1988): 38-52.
13. Deborah A. Dawson, "Family Structure and Children’s Health and Well-being: Data from the National Health Interview Survey on Child Health," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53 (1991): 573-584.
14. L. Remez, "Children Who Don’t Live with Both Parents Face Behavioral Problems," Family Planning Perspectives, January/February 1992.
15. Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, Second Chances: Men and Woman a Decade After Divorce, (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1990).
16. Nicholas Zill, Donna Morrison, and Mary Jo Coiro, "Long-Term Effects of Parental Divorce on Parent-Child Relationships, Adjustment, and Achievement in Young Adulthood," Journal of Family Psychology, 7 (1993):91-103
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