Contact: Amy Lunday
Should single parents stay that way?
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 University suggests.
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
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.
Changes 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.
For both 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 recognition.
"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."
MEDIA CONTACTS: Sujata Sinha, American Sociological Association
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 Sociological Review.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development, a part of the National Institutes of Health. Reporters
interested in speaking with Fomby and Cherlin should