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March 28, 2007
Should Single Parents Remain Single?
###The American Sociological Review is the flagship journal
of the 101-year-old American Sociological Association (ASA). Vincent J. Roscigno
and Randy Hodson, both of Ohio State University, are co-editors of the American
In an age when cohabitation and divorce are common, single parents
concerned about the developmental health of their children may want to choose
new partners slowly and deliberately, new research from The Johns Hopkins
The reason for taking your time? The more
transitions children go through in their living situation, the more likely they
are to act out, Johns Hopkins sociologists Paula Fomby and Andrew Cherlin
report. They also found that the effect of family upheaval on children varies by
In their paper, "Family Instability and Child Well-Being,"
published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, Fomby and
Cherlin note that with each breakup, divorce, remarriage or new cohabitation,
there is a period of adjustment as parents, partners, and children establish
their places in a new family setting. Studying a nationally representative
sample of mothers and their children, the researchers found that children who go
through frequent transitions are more likely to have behavioral problems than
children raised in stable two-parent families and maybe even more than those in
stable single-parent families.
Looking at children's scores on a
mother-reported assessment of behavior problems with a mean of 100 and a
standard deviation of 15 (similar to how an IQ test is scored), the authors
found that a child who experienced three transitions would have a behavior
problems score about 6 points higher compared to a child who had experienced no
transitions. Experiencing multiple transitions was also associated with
children's more frequent delinquent behavior, including vandalism, theft and
"Children are affected by disruption and changes in family
structure as well as by the type of family structures they experience," said
Fomby, an associate research scientist in the Sociology Department at Johns
Hopkins. "To the extent that family instability has an independent effect on
children's well-being, a significant reinterpretation of the effects of family
structure on children's well-being may be warranted."
The authors also
observed that children who experienced multiple transitions in family structure
had lower average scores on tests of mathematics and reading skills. That
problem was explained, however, by the mothers' own educational achievement and
cognitive ability, assessed when they were teenagers or young adults.
Fomby and Cherlin, the university's Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor
of Public Policy, analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth
and its mother-child supplement, the Children of NLSY, a 21-year panel study of
women and their children. The children they studied were between the ages of 5
and 14 in 2000. They used a cognitive achievement test, a mother-reported scale
of their children's behavior problems and, for 10- to 14-year-olds, a
self-reported scale of delinquent behavior. They also counted the number of
marital and cohabitational transitions a child had experienced.
at home seem to have a stronger negative impact on white children than on black
children, the researchers found. Fomby and Cherlin observed a consistent
connection between family instability and white children's behavior problems and
cognitive achievement, but they found no such link for black children. One
reason for this difference could be that the black children in their study were
more likely to have extended families nearby for emotional support, the
researchers wrote. The restrictions of their sample set may also have affected
the outcome: The researchers exclusively studied children born to women who were
between 21 and 38 years old at the child's birth, and black women tend to begin
having children at a younger age than white women, they said.
white and black children, Fomby and Cherlin found a persistent association
between living in a mother-only household during the child's first four years
and mother-reported behavior problems, and for white children, reading
"Family instability does appear to have a causal role in
determining whether white children exhibit more behavior problems," Fomby said.
"But for both white and black children, other dimensions of family structure,
like being born to a single parent or living with a step-parent, also have
persistent effects. Instability isn't the whole story, but looking at change
tells us more about what explains children's behavioral development than what we
would see by looking at a cross-section."
The study was funded by the
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a part of the National
Institutes of Health.
To request an interview or for a copy of the
study, contact Sujata Sinha at (202) 247-9871, firstname.lastname@example.org or Amy Lunday
at (443) 287-9960, email@example.com.
About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org),
founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to
serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science
and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.