Marriage matters, but why?
For more than 20 years, social scientists have consistently found that children do better raised by their mothers and fathers united by marriage.
For most of that time policymakers have focused on the problem of “father absence,” and it is a real problem. Very few boys and girls have involved, loving, supportive fathers if the man that made them is not married to their mama.
But a new crop of research is challenging the idea that the main or only problem with the decline of marriage is the absence of fathers. An equally big or even bigger problem may be the churning romantic lives of unmarried and divorced mothers.
A new study in the July 2011 issue of Sociology of Education by Arizona State University professor Carey E. Cooper and colleagues (including Princeton’s esteemed family scholar Sara S. McLanahan) looked at how “partnership instability” affected children’s well-being at age 5, using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a national survey that follows approximately 5,000 parents and their children from birth to age 5.
What sociologists call “externalizing” problems are behavior problems associated with aggression and rule-breaking. As Cooper and colleagues put it, the checklist asks mothers how often the child “attacks others, screams, sulks, is suspicious, teases, argues, bullies, is disobedient at school, is disobedient at home, destroys others’ things, destroys own things, fights, threatens, and is unusually loud.”
The rule-breaking subscale assesses whether a child, “prefers being with older children, runs away from home, sets fires, steals at home, steals outside of home, swears, hangs around with others who get in trouble, lies or cheats, and vandalizes.”
In assessing “internalizing” problems, mothers are asked whether their child is “overly guilty, self-conscious, worried that no one loves them, worried they might think or do something bad, worried that they have to be perfect, and worried in general.”
Attention problems include whether children “stare blankly, are confused, daydream, and act without thinking,” while social problems include asking whether children “are not liked by other children, prefer being with younger children, get jealous easily, get teased a lot, and feel others are out to get them.”
The results are striking.
It’s not just cohabitation that puts children at risk; it’s dating instability as well. Even after controlling for the parent’s marital status at birth, maternal age, race, immigrant status, parents’ education, poverty, gender and low birth weight, the researchers conclude:
“We found that both types of partnership instability (coresidential and dating) are associated with lower verbal ability, more externalizing problems and more social problems, and that coresidential instability is associated with attention problems. Our study is the first to provide strong empirical evidence that dating transitions are similar to marital and cohabiting transitions in terms of their association with children’s school readiness.”
The dating lives of mothers who are not married when their children are born are particularly tumultuous as the researchers note:
“Half of children born to unmarried parents experience three or more changes by age 5. … These findings suggest that children born into alternative family forms are at a significantly higher risk for both academic and behavioral problems at school entry.”
Oddly, the authors then go on to use these findings to critique the Bush marriage initiative.
“Current initiatives, originally funded by the Bush administration, seek to promote marriage by providing parents with training in relationships skills. … Our results suggest that a stronger emphasis on relationship stability, regardless of the type of union, is important for promoting children’s school readiness, especially among boys.”
Many family scholars, consistent with the liberal leanings of the academy, are responding to the accumulating evidence that marriage matters by urging society to make cohabiting and dating relationships as stable as marriages. Good luck with that one.
Here’s the bottom line: When mothers’ romantic lives churn, babies’ and children’s lives churn too.
Mothers, marriage matters because it restrains our romantic yearnings and our romantic losses. The restless search for soul mates is not really compatible with making your child feel he or she is the center of your world, infinitely beloved.
New partners, whether lotharios, lovers or even husbands, are often bad for your children because they sub-divide your time, attention and emotional energy.
How does marriage help protect your children? Here’s a brand-new scientific finding: Among other reasons, marriage restrains your mama drama.