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?