|Stable Home Life Helps Children Learn
NEW YORK, 14 JAN. 2006 (ZENIT)
Family structure has a significant
influence on children's educational performance. So says a recent study
published by the Center for Marriage and Families, part of the New
York-based Institute for American Values. The director of the center,
Elizabeth Marquardt, gained wide attention earlier last year with a book
she published on the effects of divorce on children.
The more-recent study produced by the center is entitled "Family
Structure and Children's Educational Outcomes," a work that relies on an
extensive review of recent academic research.
Family structure affects all levels of educational performance, from
preschool to college, the brief argues. This is so because what happens
in the family has a big influence on a range of child behaviors, such as
school misbehavior, drug and alcohol consumption, sexual activity and
teen pregnancy, and psychological distress.
Over a 35-year span, the proportion of children in the United States
being raised in two-parent homes has dropped significantly
from about 85% in 1968 to 70% in 2003
while the proportion of children living in single-parent homes has
nearly doubled. Before they reach the age of 18, most U.S. children are
likely to spend at least a significant portion of their childhoods in a
Before going on to detail the conclusions of research into the effects
on education, the policy brief took note of some problems with the
methodology of the studies.
Some studies define family structure inconsistently, and others do not
differentiate between stepparents and biological parents. Other defects
include data taken from very small numbers of unmarried cohabiting
parents, or data for only one point in time.
Despite these limitations, the research brief argued that a large body
of research clearly suggests that family structure significantly affects
children's academic and social development.
The first years
Three- and 4-year-olds growing up with their own married parents are
three times less likely than those in any other family structure to
experience emotional or behavioral problems such as attention deficit
Overall, children living with their own married parents have fewer
behavioral problems compared to children whose parents are living
together but not married. Differences in the area of physical health
also exist. Young children in single-parent families are less healthy
overall than are children in all other family types.
Moreover, children living with their own married parents are more likely
to be involved in activities that help them learn to read than are
children from single-parent homes. These differences at such a young age
can establish behavior patterns in education that persist in later
educational levels, the study warned.
In primary school, the ability of children to perform in basic subject
areas and at their grade level is weaker for those who don't live with
their own married parents. For example, fourth-graders with married
parents score higher on reading comprehension, compared to students
living in stepfamilies, with single mothers, and in other types of
families. Living in a single-parent family is also linked with decreases
in children's math scores.
To some extent the financial penalties of living in a single-parent
family explains some of the negative results, but not all. The question
of marriage itself also has a measurable impact on these educational
High school and beyond
Children growing up with non-intact families engage in more adolescent
misbehavior, which harms grades and test scores. At this older age, the
negative consequences due to family structure are notably more serious.
They affect such matters as high school dropout rates, graduation rates,
and age at first pregnancy.
The brief explained that studies carried out in both Sweden and the
United States show that children living in non-intact families do worse
educationally. In fact, each additional year a Swedish or an American
child spends with a single mother or stepparent reduces that child's
overall educational attainment by about one-half year.
The brief commented that these similarities between U.S. and Swedish
children in non-intact families are particularly striking in light of
these two nations' dramatic differences in both family policy and in
areas such as income inequality.
When it comes to college, adolescents from non-intact families continue
to pay a high price. It involves such negative consequences as lower
college attendance rates and acceptance at less-selective institutions.
As well, young people, especially women, who grow up with their own
married parents tend to marry later. Research has shown a link between
delayed marriage and higher educational attainment among young women.
The brief outlined a number of negative behavior patterns more evident
in children from non-intact families.
Misbehavior at school. Marital breakup is associated with a higher
incidence of anti-social behavior in the classroom for boys. Children
from homes headed by their own married parents have the fewest
incidences of misbehavior at school.
School attendance and tardiness. Students from non-intact families miss
school, are tardy, and cut class about 30% more often than do students
from intact homes. These differences exist in part because parents in
non-intact family homes appear less able to supervise and monitor their
Smoking, illegal drugs, and alcohol consumption. Teen-agers from
non-intact families are more likely to smoke, use drugs and consume
alcohol, even when controlling for important factors such as age, sex,
race and parent education. One study found that family structure had a
significant relationship to family attachment, with intact families
reporting higher levels of attachment. In turn, family attachment had a
direct and deterrent effect on adolescent cigarette smoking and illicit
Sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Teen-agers from non-intact families
are more likely to be sexually active. There appear to be no significant
differences in sexual behavior between adolescents from stepfamilies and
those from single-parent families. The similarity of sexual behavior
among these two groups of adolescents suggests that remarriage presents
some risks with regard to monitoring adolescent behaviors effectively
and transmitting values that deter early sexual relationships.
Illegal activities. Being in a stepparent or single-parent family at age
10 more than doubles the odds of a child being arrested by age 14. One
study found that male adolescents in families without a biological
father were more likely to be incarcerated than teens from intact-family
homes. Young people who have never lived with their biological fathers
have the highest odds of being arrested.
Psychological problems. For children, growing up without their own
married parents is linked with higher rates of stress, depression,
anxiety, and low self-esteem during the teen-age years
problems that can significantly reduce their ability to focus and
achieve in school. Research consistently shows that parental divorce has
lasting negative emotional effects throughout childhood, adolescence and
The brief concludes with recommendations for improving matters. For a
start, given that many children now grow up in non-intact families,
programs and policies should help families offset as best they can the
negative effects linked to these family structures.
More fundamentally, the brief concludes that education policy and family
policy logically go hand in hand. And, if we want better-educated
children, we need to strengthen families. Supporting marriage will allow
a greater number of children to succeed educationally and flourish
socially, the brief argued. A resolution worth recommending for the new