published Sunday, April 1st, 2012

First Things First: What about the children?

Julie Baumgardner

A few weeks ago, The New York Times published an article citing Child Trends research indicating that, in 2009, the largest growth for out-of-wedlock children was to white women in their 20s with some college education but no degree.

The article describes this as the new normal, which raises the question: How will this impact the children?

Decades of research, both liberal and conservative, show that children who live without their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to be poor, less educated, experience health and behavior problems, use drugs, engage in criminal activity and suffer more emotionally than their peers who live with married, biological (or adoptive) parents. After controlling for income, youth in father-absent households had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those in mother/father (two-parent) families. Youth who never had a father in the household experienced the highest odds. A 2002 Department of Justice survey of 7,000 inmates revealed that 39 percent of inmates lived in mother-only households.

Additionally, parents of children born out of wedlock are more likely to live with a partner outside of marriage, which increases the chances of the children suffering abuse.

According to the National Incidence Study on Child Abuse and Neglect (2009):

• Children living with their mother and her boyfriend are about 11 times more likely to be sexually, physically or emotionally abused than children living with their married biological parents.

• Children living with their mother and her boyfriend are six times more likely to be physically, emotionally or educationally neglected than children living with their married biological parents.

While abuse risks are significantly higher, there is another risk worthy of serious consideration, and that is what these children are learning about attachment and abandonment.

Sara McLanahan, one of the most respected scholars in the study of fragile families, states, "Marital status at birth is a reasonably good proxy for whether children will grow up in a stable household." McLanahan notes that children born to unmarried parents are much more likely to experience transitions in the romantic partners of their parents than other children; on average, they will experience the turnover in romantic partner of that parent they live with a number of times.

According to Dr. Scott Stanley, there is a difference for children who start out in life with a secure sense of the dependability and availability of others versus a sense that there is little security in important relationships. When these children become adults, those who did not grow up in a safe, secure environment may experience anxiety about attachment in later relationships.

Have people really stopped to consider the long-term ramifications of this "new normal?" If you think beyond this moment in time, the decisions we make today can't just be about what we want as adults. Don't we have to take into consideration the legacy we are leaving to the next generation?

Clearly there is a price to pay, not just financially but also in the lives of these precious children. The environment in which a child is born does make a difference. The evidence is overwhelming that marriage matters to children, adults and society.

Email Julie Baumgardner, president and executive director of First Things First, at julieb@firstthings.org.

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