Wedded to wedding: does marriage matter?

Family type matters, but it does not determine destiny. If you want to identify children who are at risk of doing poorly, the number of involved parents is not a great indicator.

Growing up in a single parent family or being raised by parents who are not married does not condemn children to a life of unhappiness, underachievement and delinquency. Yet conservative social commentators repeatedly argue that there is overwhelming evidence that two married parents provide the optimal family for raising children.

After more than 25 years as a family researcher, I find it disappointing this interpretation of research continues to be presented as fact. Family type matters, but does not determine destiny. If you want to identify children who are at risk of doing poorly, number of parents is a very inaccurate indicator.

The federal government study Growing Up In Australia – the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) provides the best contemporary evidence about the effects of growing up in a single parent household. In a comprehensive examination of 5,000 four year old children from the study, professor Melissa Wake and colleagues at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute concluded that being in a single parent family had no independent effect on children's physical, socio-emotional or learning outcomes.

Building on this work, associate professor Jordana Bayer from La Trobe University looked at the mental health of LSAC's 5,000 infants and 5,000 four year-olds over a six year period. From infancy to the end of primary school, a common set of factors predicted children's mental health difficulties: harsh discipline, maternal mental health difficulties, over-protective parenting and child physical health problems. Being in a single parent family or a stepfamily did not independently predict children's mental health at any age.

And what about marriage? Are children disadvantaged by living with two parents who have not legally wed? Again, LSAC's rich data on children's development challenges this view. Lixia Qu and Ruth Weston from the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that children whose parents were not married looked remarkably similar to those whose parents were married. Across 45 measures, collected from parents, teachers and children, only four outcomes showed differences – and for two of these (vocabulary and prosocial behaviour), children from cohabiting families were doing better than children from married families.

Within any field of social research, there are contradictory data and it is possible to find something to support a particular point of view. Does it matter that social commentators are pro-marriage? Surely, at worst this will have no effect, and at best may improve the lives of some children?

One problem with this approach is that it is distracting from meaningful solutions. If we want to improve the wellbeing of our children, we need to tackle the common factors that have a strong developmental influence on these problems.

Sarah Dwyer and I investigated this in a study of over 1,000 Queensland primary school children. We found that 41% of all new cases of child mental health problems could be avoided by preventing children from being exposed to coercive, disengaged and inconsistent parenting. A further 19% could be prevented by removing exposure to family conflict and parental depression and anxiety; and 14% by eliminating parental alcohol and drug abuse and criminal activity. Single parenthood and socioeconomic disadvantage accounted for less than 1% of all new cases. What happens within the home, and children's daily role models, matters more than the number of parents and financial resources available to them.

Rather than blaming parents and labelling their life circumstances as selfish choices, it is time for social policy debates to focus on how we can effectively support parents. Irrespective of family structure, we want parents to give their children the best possible start to life.

Accessible education and resources on parenting for mothers and fathers, support for vulnerable and isolated parents, employment and child care conditions that fit with the realities of family life – these are just some of the solutions that need to be considered if we are to help the next generation to navigate the complex world in which parenting takes place today.

Jan Nicholson is the Roberta Holmes Professor for the Transition to Contemporary Parenthood Program at the Judith Lumley Centre, La Trobe University.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Australia

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Catherine Garrett

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