SingleMum.com.au Expert Opinion Panel Charles Pragnell – Advocate for Children and Families
Marriage – it makes no difference to children
Married versus de facto parenting study
Charles Pragnell, Advocate for Children and Families for SingleMum.com.au | 26 July 2011
Whether parents are married or living in a de facto relationship, makes no difference to the emotional, social, and cognitive development of their children. This rather obvious conclusion has now been clearly shown in a recent research study by the UK Institute of Fiscal Studies.
Researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies have found little or no evidence that marriage itself has any effect on children’s social or cognitive development.
It was found that the differences in outcomes for children born to cohabiting couples and married couples was due to the fact that on average those who marry tend to come from more advantaged families, and are more cognitively and emotionally successful themselves, than those who cohabit.
Only a minor difference was found by the study which shows that children born to cohabiting parents, on average, exhibit a small deficit in cognitive development at ages 3, 5 and 7 compared with children born to married parents. However this small deficit is almost entirely accounted for by the fact that cohabiting parents tend to have lower educational qualifications than married parents, and is not a consequence of parental marital status itself. It was also found that children born to cohabiting parents, on average, exhibit a deficit in socio-emotional development at ages 3, 5 and 7 compared with children born to married parents. However, this gap is reduced by around two thirds once differences in parental education and socio-economic status are controlled for, and disappears entirely once other differences, such as family structure, are accounted for. This suggests that the majority of the gap in socio-emotional development between children born to cohabiting as opposed to married parents is accounted for by their parents’ lower levels of education and income.
Careful analysis shows that children born to married couples are on average more cognitively and emotionally successful than children born to cohabiting couples but this largely reflects the differences between the types of people who decide to get married and those who don’t. Whether a child’s parents are married has no benefit in terms of a child’s development.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, and the study examined data on 10,000 three and five year olds and concluded that developmental differences between children born to married parents and those born to unmarried parents are not primarily accounted for by marital status, but determined by other factors, such as parental age, education, and income.
Several other reasons were identified by the study as to why children born to married parents have higher developmental outcomes than those born to unmarried parents; their parents are older, more educated, have a higher household income, and a higher occupational status, as well as a higher relationship quality early in the child’s life.
Education, income and occupation are significant factors in whether people choose to marry or to cohabit, which is why it can appear that children born to married parents achieve better outcomes, but the evidence shows that once these differences in parental characteristics are accounted for, parents’ marital status appears to have little or no impact on children’s cognitive development. Even in the case of children’s social and behavioural outcomes, where relationship quality is important, the question is whether marriage causes or results from better quality relationships.
Conclusions which can be drawn by policy makers from this study are that a simple increase in the number of couples getting married would have a limited effect on children’s development up to the age of five.
Further findings from the study include:
- There has been a very large increase in the number of births outside of formal marriage in the last 25 years. In 2008, 3 out of 10 births in England and Wales were to cohabiting parents
- By the time children are aged 3, children born to married parents display better social and emotional development and stronger cognitive development than children born to cohabiting parents, and this can also be seen at age 5. At both ages, the differences in children’s social and emotional development are much larger than the differences in their cognitive development
- The gap in cognitive development at ages 3 and 5 between children born to cohabiting parents and those born to married parents is not statistically significant, once differences in parents’ age, education, occupation, income and housing tenure are taken into account. In other words, marriage does not change the educational, financial or housing situation of parents, but people with more educational qualifications and higher incomes are more likely to get married
- The gap in social and emotional development at ages 3 and 5 between children born to cohabiting parents and those born to married parents is reduced by more than half, but remains statistically significant when differences in parental education and socio-economic status are accounted for. Once the likelihood of a pregnancy being unplanned and the relationship quality when the child is 9 months old are also accounted for, the gap in social and emotional development between the children of married and cohabiting parents becomes statistically insignificant. Marriage may well improve relationship quality, but couples are also more likely to marry when they feel their relationship is good
- The findings cannot provide a definitive estimate of the causal impact (or lack of impact) of marriage, but unlike previous work in this area, the report accounts for differences in the prior characteristics of parents that reflect differences in the circumstances of couples who decide to enter into marriage. By doing this, the report aims to provide a more accurate estimate of the true impact of marriage on children’s development
- A second part of the study will look more closely at the issues of relationship quality and outcomes for children, and will appear later in the year.
The findings of this study would appear to be directly applicable to similar situations in Australia and in other developed countries
Adapted from information provided on the IFS website and the report, Cohabitation, marriage and child outcomes, is available to download from the IFS website .
About the author…
Charles Pragnell is an independent Expert Defence Witness for Child Protection and hasgiven evidence to courts in England, Scotland, and New Zealand. Since 1990 he has acted as an advocate/representative for children and families in child protection matters and other proceedings involving various state agencies. Since 1996 he has made special studies of issues involving Munchausen’s Syndrome By Proxy, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Shaken Baby Syndrome read more…
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