Children’s Early Family Experiences Vary Dramatically By Mother’s Education and Marital Status

The families into which children are born and in which they spend the early part of childhood have changed dramatically over the past several decades.  Changes in marriage/remarriage, divorce, cohabitation, and nonmarital childbearing have all resulted in increasingly complex family structures for children, marked by greater diversity in how families are formed, as well as more frequent transitions into and out of different family types.  This complexity has important implications for children’s well-being.

New analyses by Child Trends indicate that a child’s likelihood of living with a single parent or cohabiting parents, in a stepfamily, or with extended family members early in life varies depending on mother’s level of education and her relationship status at birth (married, cohabiting, or not living with a partner).

Key findings include:

  • Between 1990 and 2009, the percentage of births occurring outside of marriage increased for women ages 18 and older across all levels of education, but more so for those with less than a college degree.
  • The family structure of children’s households at age 5 varies markedly by mother’s level of education. Children born to mothers with higher levels of education are more likely to be living in two biological parent households and less likely to be living in a step family, single family, or some other living arrangement (such as with a grandparent).
  • Children born outside of marriage––either to cohabiting parents or to parents not living together––are substantially less likely to live with both biological parents at age 5 than are children born to married parents.
  • Having children with more than one partner – or multiple partner fertility (MPF) – is an increasing phenomenon, and is more common among women whose first birth occurred outside of marriage.
  • Multiple partner fertility is also more common among women with less than a college degree at the time of their first birth compared to those who had completed a college degree by the time of their first birth.

“Together, these trends highlight the increasing complexity of today’s families,” says Mindy Scott, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors. “They also point to significant, and increasing, differences in complexity based on mother’s level of education.”  

“Given this increasing complexity, it is important for us to identify ways to strengthen family relationships and improve mothers’ and fathers’ positive involvement with children across all types of family structures in order to improve child well-being.”

Child Trends’ analyses are based on:

  • National Vital Statistics System birth data;
  • Data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B). a nationally representative study of approximately 11,000 children born in the U.S. in 2001; and;
  • Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997 Cohort (NLSY97), a nationally-representative sample of approximately 9,000 youth aged 12–16 on December 31, 1996.

Further results from these analyses will be published in a forthcoming research brief, available on the Child Trends website,

Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children at all stages of development, across all major domains, and in the important contexts of their lives. Our mission is to improve outcomes for children by providing research, data, and analysis to the people and institutions whose decisions and actions affect children.

nonmarital birthsex