Growing up with Married Parents Is Good for Kids: But Do We Know How to Get There?

Washington, DC – The Bush Administration and the House welfare reform bill both call for programs to promote marriage among low-income families. While there is a strong research base indicating that children do best when they grow up with two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage, the research on how to promote and sustain these types of marriages among couples, especially disadvantaged couples, is quite thin.

Child Trends’ latest research brief, Marriage from a Child’s Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children, and What Can We Do About It?, examines research evidence of the effects of family structure on children, trends in family structure, and possible policy approaches related to family structure that will improve children’s well-being.

“While most children who grow up without both married parents do fine, the research shows that the best environment for children’s development is a family headed by both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage,” said Kristin A. Moore, Ph.D., president of Child Trends. “But we lack rigorous research to show us if there are program approaches that really can help disadvantaged unmarried parents marry and create a nurturing and self-sufficient family.”

Key findings from research in the brief include:

  • Two married biological parents are best for kids. On average, neither cohabitation nor marriage of a parent and a step-parent are as beneficial to children as marriage between two biological parents.
  • The birth of a child may be the best time to promote marriage between unmarried biological parents. Nearly half of births to unmarried women actually occur among cohabiting couples; another third are to couples who remain in a relationship. Many of these parents hold positive attitudes about marriage around the time of pregnancy and birth, and initial research suggests that this may be the best time for marriage promotion policies to be successful.
  • Research also suggests that education, job training and employment may indirectly promote marriage among disadvantaged couples.
  • Preventing teen pregnancies and nonmarital childbearing among adults are both strategies for reducing the number of children growing up with single parents. While significant research exists on preventing teen pregnancies, there is not an equivalent body of research on how to reduce nonmarital childbearing by adults, to whom the majority of nonmarital births now occur.
  • High-conflict marriages, even between biological parents, are detrimental for children. Domestic violence can be very destructive to children’s development, and children who grow up with parents in a high-conflict marriage have worse emotional well-being than children whose parents are in a low-conflict marriage.

The brief is available online at: www.childtrends.org/files/MarriageRB602.pdf

Child Trends, founded in 1979, is an independent, nonpartisan research center dedicated to improving the lives of children and their families by conducting research and providing science-based information to the public and decision-makers.

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