Study Reveals Major Changes in Families Worldwide and Points to Strategies to Improve Child Health

Bethesda, Md.—The World Family Map, a comprehensive report on family trends in 60 countries,  identifies and tracks key family factors affecting child and family well-being. The study reveals that in all regions of the world the family itself is undergoing major changes, with increasing proportions of children living with one or no parent, declining fertility and marriage rates, and increasing cohabitation.  Extended families, or families with additional relatives living with them, are common in many regions.  While poverty rates are high in many developing countries, there are some bright spots: nutrition and parental education have improved.

“The family is the core institution for child-rearing worldwide, and decades of research have shown that strong families promote positive child outcomes,” said Laura Lippman, co-director of the World Family Map and senior program director for education at Child Trends. “In order to develop effective policies and programs aimed at supporting healthy child development, it is critical to track the major changes occurring in families around the world, and how they are affecting child and youth outcomes.”

The World Family Map project monitors global changes in the areas of family structure, socioeconomics, processes, and culture, focusing on 16 specific indicators, updated annually. This year’s indicators and analysis suggest key opportunities to improve family and thus child well-being globally. These strategies include fostering union stability–assuming parents have low conflict relationships– extended family support, addressing poverty among families with children, and encouraging parent-child communication, among others.

“Families do not operate in a vacuum. Their ability to provide for their children and supervise their development depends not only on parenting behaviors and family structure but also on the broader social, economic, and policy environments that surround them,” said Bradford Wilcox, co-director of the World Family Map and associate professor of Sociology, University of Virginia.

The World Family Map study found distinct family patterns across regions, but also variation across countries within a region.  Specifically, some highlights of the findings include:

  • The number of parents and extended family members in a child’s household influence the human and financial resources available to the child.
  • Children are still most likely to live in two-parent families in all countries, except South Africa;
  • Growing up with a single parent is especially common in sub-Saharan Africa, in Central and South America, and in several English-speaking Western countries; in the U.S., the U.K, New Zealand, and Canada, a fifth or more of children do so. Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe have the world’s lowest rates of single parenthood.
  • Extended families are most commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Asia and Central/South America.
  • Undernourishment, or consuming fewer calories than needed for a healthy life, has become significantly less widespread in the past two decades. The percentage of the world’s population that is undernourished decreased from 23 percent in 1990-92 to less than 15 percent in 2010-12. Nevertheless, it remains an indicator of material deprivation and children need adequate nourishment for healthy development. Despite global progress in fighting hunger, in some nations in sub-Saharan Africa and Central/South America, more than 20 or even 30 percent of residents are undernourished.
  • Parental education, which positively affects parenting behaviors and child outcomes, is on the rise in many countries. Brazil exemplifies this trend, where the percentage of children living with a parent or household head with a secondary education increased from 17 to 29 percent between 2000 and 2010.
  • The percentage of adults expressing a high degree of satisfaction with family life is highest in Chile and lowest in Russia. In Chile 74 percent of adults expressed satisfaction with family life, while in Russia only 31 percent reported satisfaction.
  • The vast majority of 15-year-olds eat their main meal with their parents.   Eating meals together provides an important opportunity for teen-parental communication. The report also found that in Central/South America and some of the European countries studied, 15-year-olds are more likely to discuss how well they are doing at school frequently with their parents than to talk about more general topics, while in Germany and the Asian countries studied, the opposite holds true.

World Family Map Essay on Union Stability and Child Health in Developing Countries

The World Family Map project also released today a special analysis that explores the relationship between union instability –as measured by divorce or dissolution of a cohabiting relationship, widowhood, or repartnership– and children’s health in developing countries. The findings presented in the essay suggest that union instability compromises parents’ ability to provide the kind of consistent and attentive care that is most likely to foster good health in children.  These families may  experience increased levels of stress, less focus on the child, a reduction in social support, and a decrease in socioeconomic resources—all factors that may lead to a worsening of  children’s health.  

“As families go through these transitions, extended kin networks, communities, and private and public programs can do much to alleviate these stressors so as to improve health outcomes for children who experience such instability,” added Laurie De Rose, lead author of the essay and research assistant professor, Maryland Population Research Center, University of Maryland.

 

The essay provides specific findings across global regions. For example, children of mothers who have divorced or dissolved a cohabiting partnership, been widowed, and repartnered in Africa, Asia, and Central/South America are 20 to 43 percent more likely to die than children in stable families.  In the Middle East, however, family instability is not associated with negative child health outcomes.

The essay relied on data from international demographic and health surveys in 27 developing countries in Central/South America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The researchers examined the correlation between union instability and child health indicators of diarrhea, stunted growth and child mortality–the ultimate negative health outcome.

The World Family Map 2014 study and accompanying essay report on these and many other indicators and analyses from countries from around the world. Highlights of these are found in the attached sidebar.

About the Study/Child Trends childtrends.org

 The 2014 second annual edition of the World Family Map, released  by Child Trends and a range of educational and nongovernmental institutions, provides indicators of family well-being worldwide  and an essay focusing on union stability and early childhood health in developing countries, as well as a brief analysis of psychological distress among 9- to 16-year-olds in the European Union. Child Trends, based in Bethesda, Md., is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that provides valuable information and insights on the well-being of children and youth. For more than 30 years, policymakers, funders, educators and service providers in the U.S. and around the world have relied on our data and analyses to improve policies and programs serving children and youth. Our work is supported by foundations; federal, state and local government agencies; and by nonprofit organizations.

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           April 16, 2014

FACT SHEET

Selected Findings from the 2014

World Family Map Indicators and Essay

Family Structure:

The number of parents and extended family members in a child’s household influence the human and financial resources available to the child.

  • Two parent families: In spite of marked family changes around the globe over the last half-century, children are still most likely to live in two-parent families in all countries except South Africa.
  • Living without either parent: One out of five children are living without either of their parents in South Africa and Uganda, and at least one out of eight children do so in other sub-Saharan African countries. About one out of 10 children live apart from both parents in several countries in Central/South America (Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Nicaragua), while less than one in approximately 20 do so in other regions of the world.
  • Single parent families: Growing up with a single parent is especially common in sub-Saharan Africa, in Central and South America, and in several English-speaking Western countries; in the U.S., the U.K, New Zealand, and Canada, a fifth or more of children do so. Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe have the world’s lowest rates of single parenthood.
  • Extended families:  Additional adults in a household can compensate for the absence of one or both parents. Extended families are most commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Asia and Central/South America.
  • Marriage rates: Although marriage rates for adults aged 18-49 are declining worldwide, they remain high in Asia and the Middle East (between 47 percent in Singapore and 80 percent in Egypt), and are particularly low in Central/South America. The rate of cohabitation for adults aged 18-49 tops 30 percent in some Central/South American countries and 20 percent in some European nations.
  • Fertility rates: While fertility rates are also declining worldwide, nonmarital childbearing is increasing in many regions, with the highest rates found in Central/South America and Western Europe.

Family Socioeconomics:

 Indicators such as poverty, undernourishment, parental education, employment, and public family benefits measure the material, human, and government resources available to families raising children.

  •     Undernourishment, or consuming fewer calories than needed for a healthy life, has become significantly less widespread in the past two decades. The percentage of the world’s population that is undernourished decreased from 23 percent in 1990-92 to less than 15 percent in 2010-12. Nevertheless, it remains an indicator of material deprivation and children need adequate nourishment for healthy development. Despite global progress in fighting hunger, in some nations in sub-Saharan Africa and Central/South America, more than 20 or even 30 percent of residents are undernourished.
    • Parental education, which positively affects parenting behaviors and child outcomes, is on the rise in many countries. Brazil exemplifies this trend, where the percentage of children living with a parent or household head with a secondary education increased from 17 to 29 percent between 2000 and 2010.

 

Family Processes:

 Family processes describe family members’ interactions with one another: how they communicate, when they spend time together, how frequently they experience conflict, and whether they are satisfied with family life. Such factors can be positive or negative influences on child outcomes.

  • The percentage of adults expressing a high degree of satisfaction with family life, in countries where this measure is available, ranges widely from 31 percent in Russia to 74 percent in Chile.
  • The frequency of parent-teen communication varies across countries; however, the vast majority of 15-year-olds eat their main meal with their parents in the countries where data are available. In Central/South America and some of the European countries studied, 15-year-olds are more likely to discuss how well they are doing at school frequently with their parents than to talk about more general topics, while in Germany and the Asian countries studied, the opposite holds true.

Family Culture:

National attitudes toward family norms can influence trends in family structure and functioning, and thus they are important to monitor.

  • Voluntary single motherhood is more widely accepted where it is more common, with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, where attitudes toward single motherhood are more negative, even though single motherhood is comparatively common. Acceptance of voluntary single motherhood varies tremendously by region. In general, between 40 and 70 percent of adults in the Americas, Europe, and Oceania approve of it, but just two to 29 percent of those in Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa do so.

Essay on Union Stability and Childhood Health:

The findings of this additional analysis suggest that the family contexts of caregiving deserve attention in ongoing efforts to improve children’s health around the world. (Note that adoptive and same sex parents are not included in this analysis, so comparisons with them cannot be made.)

  • In Asia, Central/South America and the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa, children raised by mothers who have experienced union instability are more likely to have health problems, especially diarrhea and to die, than children raised by a mother who has remained in her first union.
    • In Africa and Asia, for instance, recent diarrhea was 16 percent and 35 percent more common, respectively, among children of repartnered mothers than among children born to mothers continuously in their first union.
    • Children of mothers who have divorced or dissolved a cohabiting partnership, been widowed, and repartnered in Africa, Asia, and Central/South America are 20 to 43 percent more likely to die than children in stable families.
    • In the Middle East, however, family instability is not associated with negative child health outcomes.
    • In many lower-income countries studied, single motherhood is more common among better-educated and wealthier mothers, a fact that stands in contrast to the typical pattern in higher-income countries.

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