Yesterday the BBC published an article entitled 'Do children in two-parent families do better?'
It focussed on two studies on children growing up since 2000. The Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing Study from the US found that children who grew up in an environment where parents were cohabiting or there was a lone parent, were twice as likely not to graduate from high school. Even a child in a stable single-parent household was likely to do worse on some measures than a child of a married couple. The BBC article also reported on the UK's Millennium Cohort Study, which found a 16 per cent rise in emotional problems and an 8 per cent rise in conduct issues for children between the ages of 7 and 14 whose parents broke up.
The Marriage Foundation has also found that “cohabiting parents make up 19 per cent of all couples with dependent children, but account for half of all family breakdown” and that “even among intact parents, children of married parents are less likely to exhibit mental health problems [than children of cohabiting parents].”
The evidence is in. Yet it is intriguing how nervous both the BBC and the academics quoted are to follow through the conclusions of this research.
There is a clear correlation between negative outcomes for children and single parent and cohabiting households and yet the article notes that “Neither Prof McLanahan nor Prof Fitzsimons think their research should change the complex decisions individuals make about how to raise their children.”
If research is not meant to change behaviour or what decisions we make then what exactly is its purpose?
The article is right to note that this is a "deeply sensitive area" and that these debates are not about judging or blaming anyone. The last thing that single parents need to hear is criticism of their tireless effort and work in raising their children.
It is weak however, for the BBC to report this research is merely about "capturing the challenges some families face". We cannot simply acknowledge challenges, we must seek to tackle them in a positive way. And that begins by being honest: Children raised by married parents tend to fare better.
Marriage is best
Marriage offers a stable environment for children that cohabiting simply cannot match, and yet this article seems not to want to acknowledge that reality or the public policy decisions that must follow.
The fundamental question we must look at when approaching family policy is what is in children’s best interests. If it has been clearly shown that marriage is the best environment for children to be raised, then why is there so much nervousness to say that?
Family breakdown is not a lifestyle choice to be lightly taken and it is to our loss that the idea of "staying together for the kids" has been so roundly rejected in the past 20 years.
If it has been clearly shown that marriage is the best environment for children to be raised then why is there so much nervousness to say that?
Criticism should be aimed successive governments who have allowed us to get to this position, who consistently neglect supporting marriage and instead pursue policies that disincentivise commitment and families supporting one another.
We also need to look at ourselves. As Christians who think highly of marriage, we must not ignore or look down on single parents and their children. We have a place of hope, reconciliation and healing where all are invited to come regardless of their background: the local church. This is a place where people find fathers, mothers, siblings and grandparents that they never had. For Christians, family is both biological and spiritual. The Church is the family where the unconditional love of Christ is shared. This means that acknowledging the reality of broken families does not lead us to despair. Rather we hold out the hope of Christ, expressed in the unique healing community of the church, knowing that in him we find our rest.
Jonathan Williams is Family Policy Officer for CARE