What Does Child Trends Have Against Marriage?

04.08.2011, 3:09 PM

Today Child Trends, the respected non-partisan research organization devoted to improving outcomes for children, released a research brief titled “Parental Relationship Quality and Child Outcomes Across Subgroups.” Based on the responses of 64,000 participants involved in the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health, the brief by Kristin Moore, Andrea Kinghorn, and Tawana Bandy claims that “parents’ relationship quality is very consistently and positively associated with a range of child and family outcomes…” and that the “association holds across varied subgroups” including across income, gender, age of children, immigration status, and “married and cohabiting couples.”

The latter got my attention.

They go on to say, “almost without exception, the lowest levels of positive child outcomes are found among children in families where the parents report that their relationship is ‘not too happy.’ In contrast, the best child outcomes are found almost without exception among children whose parents report that their relationship is ‘completely happy.’” They repeat that this “pattern holds across various subgroups” including “family type.”

But let’s take a look at the data on which they base these conclusions. Turn with me to Table 1 and examine the column called “family type.”

When the parents’ relationship was reported as “completely happy,” here are the percentages of parents who report that their child has behavior problems, by type of family:

Married parents (biological or adoptive): 4

Married step: 9

Cohabiting (bio or adoptive): 6

Cohabiting step: 11

In other words, in this very large sample of 64,000 children, among those who had a parent reporting that the relationship of the adults in the home was “completely happy,” the children in stepfamilies were over twice as likely to be reported as having behavior problems compared to children living with their own married parents. The children in a cohabiting step arrangement (translation: in most cases, mom living with her boyfriend) were almost three times as likely to have these problems.

These not-insignificant differences are readily apparent in other categories reported in that table, including having socially competent behavior and high levels of school engagement. In nearly all cases the children of married bio or adoptive parents do the best, even among those who have a parent who reports very high levels of adult relationship quality in the home.

Moreover, the brief avoids noting that adults’ relationship quality is dependent on them actually being a couple. Those stepfamilies and especially those cohabiting parents are far more likely to break up than the married bio or adoptive parents.  Other studies that follow kids over time reveal increased negative outcomes for those who experience multiple family transitions, such as the break up of their stepfamily or their parents’ cohabiting union.

Child Trends, why do this? Why isolate relationship quality without noting the intimate connection between relationship quality and marital status? (The latter conferring stability, and thus the likelihood of higher quality in a moment in time and over time.) Why say that kids do fine in any kind of family structure so long as the adults in the home get along when your own data reveals a far more complex and troubling portrait?


21 Responses to “What Does Child Trends Have Against Marriage?”

  1. Jeffrey says:

    It seems to me that the big data point is that cohabiting parents with bio or adopted children do almost as well as married parents with bio or adopted children when mom and dad say they are “completely happy.” That seems to question the “children do best when with married mom and dad” theory.

  2. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    But cohabs break up a lot more than marrieds.

  3. Marilynn says:

    There is much on this board about marriage being not just beneficial for couples but also for any offspring that couple may have together. Its very difficult to read because it feels very superior and judgemental to me a wife and mother in a doomed 12 year marriage. (we are separated for the 10 billionth time although this time feels real). I know you guys are just supporting a nice solid home life for children. One that provides both parents the opportunity to have daily interaction with their children by virtue of living in the same house. Its good for the parents to be around their children every day and its good for the child. I would even say that parents have gotten a little permissive with the whole idea that its not good for the children to see their parent’s in a loveless relationship in the same house – better they be happy apart crap. What is best for the kids is to be around both parents every day and if you can be in the same space without verbal or physical abuse even if your not in love maybe you ought to do it. Sadly even if it means cheating on eachother with other people, putting up with it. Maybe I believe that maybe I don’t. I have a six year old that is devastated that her father no longer lives here. He has her every weekend. He is a very dedicated father. He is very critical and mean to me all the time. He cheats on me and he is not real remorseful about it. We’ve been together since we were 22 and we are 40. We were married in 1999, our son was born in 2003 and past away shortly after and our daughter was born in 2004. We did things properly. We have had a tremoltuous relationship long before we were married we were in counseling. Hearing how wonderful it is for kids to be raised in homes with married parents really sucks to hear about. Its like the people writing that stuff are stepford wives that believe people ought to try harder or know better than to marry the wrong person. I feel like people that write that stuff would look at me not living with my spouse about to get divorced and say – well you should not have brought a child into a relationship that was not solid. Just like it feels like there is judgement on single females with their baby-daddy’s hell even respectable married women have baby daddies once they are divorced. Ex husband only describes the status of the marital relationship not the facht that a particular person will always be in a woman’s life because he is the father of her child. I guess what I’m saying is stating the obvious kind of stings when there is nothing to be done about it. Most women would not deliberately choose to have an anonymous man father their child unless they felt they were up against a wall somehow (I don’t agree that they should do it, but I believe ithey know its not optimal). The rest of us who wind up being single because it just did not work out or find ourselves pregnant with a baby by a man that cared much less for us than we thought, the marriage that occurred in the middle is largely irrellevant it hurts that it did not work out. It hurts a lot to know that not only did we fail or the guy failed but our children will not do as well because of it. My husband actually said that because I am not willing to work with him on our marriage I’ve cost him the ability to see his child every day. He blames me for that. I feel terrible. He left us. I put up with all of it. He just could not stand to be around me. So please tell me what is the goal of the publications encouraging marriage? It seems so obvious that people would get married if they were in love enough and would stay married if they could hack it. With anonymous conception I know that there are laws that can be changed to treat the children more fairly, I know there is a possibility to make a difference by speaking out.

    What is the goal of talking about the benefits of married parents. Not that you should not talk about something because boo hoo it hurts some chicks feelings, I’m the last person to mean that, don’t take it wrong. I don’t have to read it if its that disturbing. I’m just trying to figure out what the point is of talking about it. We cant take away kids of unmarried parents and give them up for adoption or take away the kids of divorced parents and put them up for adoption. I don’t think your suggesting that. What is the message that literature hopes to convey to women like me? Or are women like myself not the target audience? If so who is the target audience?

  4. Marilynn says:

    would the delete the last dingleberry paragraph of my comment please and thank you?

  5. David Blankenhorn says:

    Several years ago I wrote an op-ed for the LA Times on gay marriage in which I cited a Child Trends study. The president of Child Trends, whom I’d known for years, called me up to demand quite aggresively that I retract the sentence mentioning Child Trends and promise her never again to cite their study in an article about gay marriage. Her reason was that the Child Trends study in question was not specifically intended to address the issue of same-sex marriage.

    I asked her if I had misreported or misrepresented the study’s finding, and we agreed that I had not; but for her, that was not the point. For her, the point was that she did not want any finding from any Child Trends study to be used in any way by anyone writing in opposition to same-sex marriage. I used blunt language in telling her what she could do with that opinion, and we concluded the call by agreeing to disagree.

    Their stance, apparently, is that they are willing to repress or distort their own social science findings (and to insist to the best of their ability that others do so as well) rather than be made to feel politically uncomfortable. What a shame — not only for them as an organization, but for anyone interested in the role that social science can or should play in our public conversation.

  6. ki sarita says:

    Marilyn sounds to me that you are trying to do the best for your daughter in every way. You tried to work out your best you could on your marriage. That was the right thing to do. It’s unfortunate that your efforts were not reciprocated. But now that it has failed, you are not required to sacrifice yourself for the sake of an unliveable marriage.

    Your daughter will encounter difficulties it’s true. But she is not doomed. You will help her move on.

  7. ki sarita says:

    Did the study assess the same children after the marriages/cohabiting relationships ended?

  8. Peter Hoh says:

    To me, this represents the blurring of the distinction between marriage and non-marriage.

  9. Marilynn says:

    Peter more to the point it blurs the distinction between parent and non-parent. It took me quite a while to understand why she was saying parents that were perfectly happy with their relationship if in fact they were living apart hand had married other people or were living with other people.

    I’m exhausted by people extending to themselves and to others the unqualified familial titles associated only with human reproduction. Its part of the reason why so many people can get away with lying on birth certificates, they think they’ve earned the title of mother or father through sweat and tears absent the blood of relatedness. The real irony is that these same people are happy to take the title upon the day of birth long before any effort that causes sweat or pain to shed a tear. At least when relatives take the title in advance of making sacrifices they have something they are the ones that created the child.

  10. Jeffrey says:

    unqualified familial titles associated only with human reproduction

    Except that the titles “mother” and “father” have never been conditioned on human reproduction or a census at conception. While it is true that it is accurate in 95% of situations, that doesn’t mean that it is “only” associated with human reproduction. You are creating a fiction.

  11. John Kratz says:

    What this survey brings to my attention is the need to focus on our marriages. Many couples give 100% to their children and when the children leave “the nest” they find they are no longer connected. They stayed together “for the kids” in an unhappy relationship not realizing that this wasn’t helpful at all. Giving ourselves permission to spend the resources of time, attention, and finance to strengthen our marriages has the statistiaclly noted benefit of helping our children.

  12. Maida says:

    It would be wonderful if we didn’t need statistics or data to prove that children who live with parents who are happily married have more positive outcomes than children in other family settings. However, we need to be aware of this so that we can try our hardest to make better choices of the partners we select for the sake of our children. Granted, we’re all going to make mistakes but if we kept in mind that an unhealthy environment with or without both parents in the household is detrimental to children, who are the innocent victims, we could avoid relationships that increase the chances of our children having negative outcomes. The first step to any change is awareness and then is up to us whether to implement a plan of change or not.

  13. nobody.really says:

    Two thoughts:

    1. To what extent should we consider the interest that a child has in the circumstances of its birth, if altering those circumstances would have eliminated the birth? Whose interests are we protecting here?

    I have not adopted the view that a child has a right to expect an optimal birth. Society, however, does have an interest. I regard reproduction as a kind of market failure: The people whose conduct results in reproduction do not bear the full consequences – both beneficial and detrimental – of their actions. Consequently society has an interest in ensuring that a kid is conceived, born, and raised in circumstances that will minimize the likelihood that the kid will become a burden to his neighbors.

    For example, if a pregnant woman does not seek an abortion, I argue that the state acquires an interest in the fetus immediately and is justified in trying to stop the woman (and perhaps others) from engaging in conduct known to be harmful to a fetus – smoking, drinking, etc. That is, I am not persuaded that society has an interest in compelling people to reproduce and raise kids; but I do think society has an interest in barring them from doing it badly.

    (The extent to which the state can effectively influence a pregnant woman’s conduct is an important – but separate – question.)

    2. Speaking of overriding social issues: Should society adopt policies designed to perpetuate itself, even at the expense of individual liberty? If you haven’t noticed, industrialized nations are aging – that is, not reproducing at a rate sufficient to offset deaths. What policies does this fact justify?

    A. Conserve. That is, subsidize health care to prolong the lives of the people we’ve got. No big objections there.

    B. Find alternatives. That is, redesign our world to require less labor. Build more washing machines; live in buildings that don’t require so much maintenance per person; etc. No big objections there.

    C. Facilitate imports. Industrialized nations have been exporting low-skilled, physical jobs to the developing world for years, and simply importing the results of that labor. Arguably, reproduction is just one more example. People born in the developing world are immigrating to the industrialized world. In addition, people in the industrialized world adopt increasing numbers of kids from the developing world. But if evidence shows that adoptions are sub-optimal circumstances in which to raise a kid, what then?

    D. Stimulate domestic production. I had previously suggested that the state does not have an interest in compelling people to reproduce against their will. Not to go all Handmaid’s Tale on you, but if the state is justified in drafting people to defend the nation from being wiped out by foreign foes, is it so far-fetched to say that the state could draft people to defend the nation from other types of annihilation?

    Short of that, if the state has a concern that we are producing and nurturing insufficient numbers of kids in optimal circumstance – distinct from the state’s concern about whether too many kids are being born or nurtured in sub-optimal circumstances – then the state may be justified in subsidizing these optimal practices.

  14. Marilynn Huff says:

    If 50% of marriages end in divorce half the married people on the planet never should have said “I do” in the first place. Maybe the message needs to be don’t get married or stay married for the sake of the children – get married because your madly in love or don’t get married at all.

  15. ki sarita says:

    or it means that many of those people shouldn’t be getting divorced

    or that getting divorced doesn’t mean the marriage was a mistake.
    life changes, circumstances change, and nothing would ever happen if no one took a gamble

    some marriages, yeah sure, should have definitely never happened

  16. Marilynn Huff says:

    Kisarita I believe in marriage I do its just it seems that the focus on it is kind of pointless since there is not much to be done about marriage. The law can’t obligate people to stay married but can and should obligate people to raise their children to adulthood, to stand up and be named, identified, to not conceal their children’s identity from the rest of the family. It seems like that is something we can really do something about. Stopping divorce? Or making people get married if they don’t want? I mean good luck with no sex before marriage. That has not gone well since the dawn of time. Seems like all the law can really do is hold people accountable for their children or at least transfering custody in a clear documented way. I’m touchy about the marriage thing because I feel like I tried. I’m even still married. I don’t want a divorce. It may come my way anyway. Bad for the kids….yeah I get it. ;)

  17. Veronique says:

    I think part of the point in discussing this is to discuss it with our children when they are becoming young adults. We need to teach our children that getting married (choosing a marriage partner) is the most important decision of their life, because it has consequences not just for them but also for their offspring.

    Of course this goes back to the fundamentals of marriage; why do people get married or want to? What should we be looking for in a marriage partner? We need to give it a lot more thought than saying we’re in love. It takes more than a feeling to make a lasting marriage. Shared moral values, spiritual journey, common interests, wanting children, you can make your own list (the Bible has a lot of good pointers), just give it its due consideration. You know how much research people put into buying a new car, which may last 5-10 years; how much more they should put into what they really want in marriage, to last a lifetime!

    I believe it is very difficult to have a happy lasting marriage without God’s help, because it is very difficult to be a truly happy person, at peace with yourself, without Jesus in your life. And unhappy people do not make happy marriages. It just doesn’t happen. Your spouse will not “fix” what is wrong or missing in your life, just like children won’t “fix” what is wrong or missing in your relationship. A new relationship won’t “fix” you either. That yearning you have, for a more fulfilled life? Only God can fill it. You can go ahead and try other stuff, I have; it doesn’t work.

    Nobody.really, I think the state does have an interest in encouraging optimal circumstances in the raising of children, which are, not coincidentally, the circumstances described in biblical marriages. It’s interesting that we need secular studies to tell us what God has been saying all along. But it sounds better when we say it, I guess. In any event, I am all for subsidies for those who are providing these optimal circumstances!

  18. Marilynn Huff says:

    You are very sweet and non-judgmental in your explanation. Thank you for taking my question seriously I appreciate it.

  19. From the lead author of the Child Trends brief: I’m glad for the opportunity to respond to some of the issues raised in these comments. For this study, I was interested in exploring an important hypothesis that hasn’t been previously examined because the necessary data have not been available — the breadth and consistency of the association between couple relationship quality and child outcomes. Some people have said that the association reflects a middle class phenomenon that does not extend to other groups, so I wanted to test that assumption, which I think is a very important question.

    The association between family structure and child outcomes is well-established and has been documented repeatedly, e.g., in the Future of Children special edition on the subject and many articles in the Journal of Marriage and Family and in Demography, so that wasn’t the focus of this new research. I think that the hypothesis that was tested is very important and (while caveats exist and are noted in the brief) the analysis represents a contribution to what is known about couple relationship quality and child outcomes.

    -Kristin A. Moore
    Senior Scholar, Child Trends

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