Do children in two-parent families do better?

Researchers have been looking at how children from single-parent and two-parent families fare in life. So what did they find? The BBC reports.

During the past 20 years about one in five children has been growing up in a lone-parent family. This reflects big social shifts in attitudes and opportunities, some of which started in the 1960s, when women began to gain more control over when to have children.

Two large studies in the UK and the US have been following children growing up since about the year 2000.

It’s a deeply sensitive area and the academics involved insist this is not about judging or blaming but rather capturing the challenges some families face when there is one parent.

Sara McLanahan was a single parent herself for 10 years, after her first marriage ended in divorce. Now, she is professor of sociology at Princeton University, in the US, where she has overseen the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.

Five thousand children and their parents were recruited into the study in large American cities, mostly in families where the parents were not married.

In this research, even allowing for economic disadvantage, Prof McLanahan said, data began to show the impact of instability on a child’s life.

Those whose parents had divorced were more likely to fail to progress at school.

Children who were in what the researchers characterised as a “fragile family”, where parents were cohabiting or there was a lone parent, were twice as likely not to graduate from high school.

There are big differences between the fragile families study and similar work done in the UK. In the year 2000, 19,000 children were recruited with their parents into the Millennium Cohort Study.

The idea was to track their lives through to adulthood, looking at many different aspects of how they were doing.

Unlike the US study, the data here shows little difference between married and cohabiting parents, perhaps because this large study is more representative of the population as a whole.

The children in the Millennium Cohort Study are assessed every year for basic skills such as numeracy and literacy.

On both the basic education skills and the outcomes, children in single parents appear to be worse.

“We measure their wellbeing levels, of depressive symptoms, of how they’re feeling, their levels of anxiety and so on. And we tend to see they’re also doing worse – also on that dimension,” said lead researcher Prof Emla Fitzsimons, from the Institute of Education.

The difference appears to be the greatest among teenage girls:

  • Of girls in a family with two parents in a stable relationship, 22% had high levels of depressive symptoms

  • For girls living with a single parent, this rose to 27%

Find out more about the studies Do children in two-parent families do better?

Have you seen similar findings in your school? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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  1. Anonymous

    Hardly surprising is it? It’s why successful societies have upheld marriage – monogamous, life long – as the gold standard and frowned upon illegitimacy; not to be ‘judgmental’, but to protect children.
    Failure to do this, and instead to give equal weighting to all other lifestyles (wherein adults indulge themselves and the children can go hang), is why Western governments are overseeing the decline and fall of Western civilisation.

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