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June 17, 2010 Print

30 Years of Research that Tell Us, ‘A Child Deserves a Mother and a Father’

by Jenny Tyree

It’s more than an opinion.  Following is documentation for just a handful of the studies that support the conclusion that children do best with their biological, married mother and father.

Nobody to our knowledge has actually counted all the studies supporting the value of married mother/father headed families. They are too numerous to count and there are few topics within the social sciences that enjoy more numerous and diverse published research documentation from the world’s leading scholars than how married mothers and fathers impact child well-being.

Below we offer just a sampling of conclusions by various, universally recognized scholars and child-advocacy organizations on what the research says about which family form best contributes to healthy child development.

•    James Q. Wilson, one of the world’s brightest and most well-respected social scientists, wrote a very important article on the importance of marriage recently. He says:

Almost everyone – a few retrograde scholars excepted – agrees that children in mother-only homes suffer harmful consequences: the best studies show that these youngsters are more likely than those in [mother/father] families to be suspended from school, have emotional problems, become delinquent, suffer from abuse and take drugs.

He explains that some of the difference in these children, perhaps half, can be explained by the economic difference of living without a father. But, he explains, “The rest of the difference is explained by a mother living without a husband.”

Two leading mainstream child-advocacy organizations recently sought to understand which family form best elevated child well-being outcomes. Their conclusions found that married mothers and fathers in low conflict marriages accomplished this important task best.

•    The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), found:

Most researchers now agree that…studies support the notion that, on average, children do best when raised by their two married biological parents…   Research indicates that, on average, children who grow up in families with both their biological parents in a low-conflict marriage are better off in a number of ways than children who grow up in single-, step or cohabiting-parent households.

This paper can be found at: http://www.clasp.org/publications/Marriage_Brief3.pdf

•    In addition, Child Trends concludes:

An extensive body of research tells us that children do best when they grow up with both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage… Thus, it is not simply the presence of two parents, as some have assumed, but the presence of two biological parents that seem to support child development.  (Emphasis in original)

This paper can be found at: http://www.childtrends.org/files/MarriageRB602.pdf

•    A diverse team of family scholars working collectively from the Universities of Texas, Virginia, Minnesota, Chicago, Maryland, Washington, UC Berkeley,  and Rutgers University recently reported  on the multiple benefits for children who live with their own married parents.  In this family structure children,

  • live longer, healthier lives both physically and mentally.
  • do better in school.
  • are more likely to graduate and attend college.
  • are less likely to live in poverty.
  • are less likely to be in trouble with the law.
  • are less likely to drink or do drugs.
  • are less likely to be violent or sexually active.
  • are less likely to be victims of sexual or physical violence.
  • are more likely to have successful marriage when they are older.

•    Sociologist Paul Amato, writing in a study published jointly by Princeton University and the Brookings Institute, explains,

Specifically, compared with children who grow up in stable, two-parent families, children born outside marriage reach adulthood with less education, earn less income, have lower occupational status, are more likely to be idle (that is, not employed and not in school), are more likely to have a non-marital birth (among daughters), have more troubled marriages, experience higher rates of divorce, and report more symptoms of depression… Research clearly demonstrates that children growing up with two continuously married parents are less likely than other children to experience a wide range of cognitive, emotional, and social problems, not only during childhood, but also in adulthood.

This paper can be found at: http://www.futureofchildren.org/usr_doc/05_FOC_15-2_fall05_Amato.pdf

•    Sara McLanahan of Princeton University, one of the world’s leading scholars on how family form impacts child well-being, explains from her extensive investigations:

If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent family ideal. Such a design, in theory, would not only ensure that children had access to the time and money of two adults, it would provide a system of checks and balances that promote quality parenting. The fact that both adults have a biological connection to the child would increase the likelihood that the parents would identify with the child and be willing to sacrifice for that child and it would reduce the likelihood that either parent would abuse the child.

The research is clear, if we are concerned about elevating the well-being and life opportunities for children, we must be concerned about the health and strength of the two-parent family.

More Research

Below is merely a sampling of the mountain of diverse studies and books that support the value of the two-parent married family:

•    Steven Stack and J. Ross Eshleman, “Marital Status and Happiness: A 17-Nation Study,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60 (1998): 527-536;

•    David Popenoe, Life Without Father: Compelling Evidence that Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children, (New York, The Free Press, 1997)

•    Glenn T. Stanton Why Marriage Matters: Reasons to Believe in Marriage in Postmodern Society, (Colorado Springs, Pinon Press, 1997)

•    W. Bradford Wilcox, et al., Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition: Twenty Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences, (New York: Institute for American Values, 2005)

•    Paul Amato, “The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation,” in The Future of Children, “Marriage and Child Wellbeing,” Volume 15, Number 2, Fall 2005, (Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and The Brookings Institution)

•    Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, (New York Doubleday, 200)

•    Katherine Reissman and Naomi Gerstel, “Marital Dissolution and Health: Do Males or Females Have Greater Risk?” Social Science and Medicine 20 (1985): 627-635

•    Robert Coombs, “Marital Status and Personal Well-Being: A Literature Review,” Family Relations 40 (1991) 97-102

•    George A. Akerlof, “Men Without Children,” The Economic Journal 108 (1998) 287-309

•    Ronald P. Rohner and Robert A. Veneziano, “The Importance of Father Love: History and Contemporary Evidence,” Review of General Psychology 5.4 (2001): 382-405

•    Kyle D. Pruett, Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child, (New York: The Free Press, 2000)

•    David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, (New York: Basic Books, 1994)

•    Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994)

•    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

•    Scott Coltrane, “Father-Child Relationships and the Status of Women: A Cross-Cultural Study,” American Journal of Sociology, 93 (1988) p. 1088

•    Jan Stets, “Cohabiting and Marital Aggression: the Role of Social Isolation,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991): 669-680

•    Michael Gordon, “The Family Environment of Sexual Abuse: A Comparison of Natal and Stepfather Abuse,” Child Abuse and Neglect, 13 (1985): 121-130

•    Michael Stiffman, et al., “Household Composition and Risk of Fatal Child Maltreatment,” Pediatrics, 109 (2002), 615-621

•    Frank Putnam, “Ten Year Research Update Review: Child Sexual Abuse,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 42 (2003) 269-279

•    Richard Koestner, et al., “The Family Origins of Empathic Concern: A Twenty-Six Year Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58 (1990): 709-717

•    E. Mavis Hetherington, “Effects of Father Absence on Personality Development in Adolescent Daughters,” Developmental Psychology 7 (1972): 313 –326

•    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

•    Sara L. McLanahan, “Life Without Father: What Happens to Children?” Center for Research on Child Wellbeing Working Paper #01-21. Princeton University, August 15, 2001

•    Paul R. Amato and Fernando Rivera, “Paternal Involvement and Children’s Behavior Problems,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 375-384

•    David Ellwood, Poor Support: Poverty in the American Family (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 46

•    Ronald J. Angel and Jacqueline Worobey, “Single Motherhood and Children’s Health,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 29 (1988): 38-52;

•    L. Remez, “Children Who Don’t Live with Both Parents Face Behavioral Problems,” Family Planning Perspectives, January/February 1992

•    Judith Wallerstein, et al., The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, (New York: Hyperion, 2000)

•    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.

•    James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families (New York: Harper Collins, 2002)

•    Steven Stack and J. Ross Eshleman, “Marital Status and Happiness: A 17-Nation Study,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60 (1998): 527-536

•    Chris Wilson and Andrew Oswald, “How Does Marriage Affect Physical and Psychological Health? A Survey of the Longitudinal Evidence,” currently unpublished paper from the University of Warwick, May 2005, p. 13.  (paper accessed at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/faculty/oswald/healthlong2005.pdf)