The Jubilee Centre Blog

Does Marriage Improve Child Development?

John Hayward   Posted: 21 July 2011

Keywords: Sex & Families,

Research published this week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies finds 'little or no evidence that marriage itself has any effect on children's social or cognitive development.'

It is worth looking at this study in the context of other similar studies. These have also found some support for theoretical perspectives emphasising parental economic disadvantage, for instance, but the most consistent support was found for a family conflict perspective.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists notes that over half of couples divorcing in the UK have at least one child aged under 16. Based on their wealth of practical experience (rather than theoretical speculation) with tens of thousands of children, they say: 'Emotional and behavioural problems in children are more common when their parents are fighting or separating. Children can become very insecure. Insecurity can cause children to behave like they are much younger and therefore bedwetting, 'clinginess', nightmares, worries or disobedience can all occur. Teenagers may show their distress by misbehaving or withdrawing into themselves. They may find it difficult to concentrate at school.'

The Jubilee Centre's own recent research, based on data from another national survey, involving more than 14,000 households and 22,000 adults, showed that by the time a child is five years old the separation rate for couples who were cohabiting when their first child was born is around six times the rate for couples who were married. By the time the child is 16, the separation rate for cohabiting couples is still four times as high. It is naive and unrealistic to think that this will not have an impact on the wellbeing and development of children involved.

At the end of the day, whether it is marriage itself that is beneficial to children or the parental factors that cause them to marry, it remains the case, to quote the IFS report, that 'Children born to married parents achieve better cognitive and social outcomes, on average, than children born into other family forms, including cohabiting unions.' And this is something we should want to encourage for all children in our communities.

If parents' lower levels of education and income are also factors, as they undoubtedly are, then these too are areas that we would want government to seek to target. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they should form part of an integrated approach to dealing with the problems of debt, addiction, unemployment, and crime associated with family breakdown.

Comments

If it was not tragic, it would be funny how keen some people are to refuse to face up to the overwhelming evidence that something that it was considered normal to value in the past - ie marriage - MIGHT still have something to be said for it now! Just because some of the people who wish marriage to be more overtly respected are 'religious' should not imply it should be automatically condemned.... We do not wish to promote the ostracism of the past towards unmarried couples but it is surely silly to deny the common sense of appealing to the authorities to find ways of 'nudging' couples towards confirming what we all hope are their private vows of loyalty towards each other in a public setting - which is what marriage is, stripped of the palaver that now accompanies it. Marriage is a reasonable test of their being a couple worth backing, not least financially, as they are likely to be serious about being part of the solution rather than part of the problem to many social ills. Does not the equal support of the authorities for those who have no intention or likelihood of staying together permanently bring such support into disrepute?

As a minister I have taken many marriages of those already living together and have rejoiced in the happiness of their children who compare the state of many in their schools - ie "My parents are (getting) divorced" - with their own assertion, "My parents are getting married!"

Angela Robinson    21 July 2011

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