Does marriage improve child development?

Photo credit Alex Lecea

Photo credit Alex Lecea

by John Hayward

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.

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Category: Blogs

July, 2011

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