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Children in two-parent families do better

March 2019

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The absence of one of their parents has a big negative impact on children’s lives, according to two large research studies in the UK and the US.

The British and American studies have been following children growing up since about the year 2000.

The academics involved say this is not about judging or blaming but rather capturing the challenges some families face when there is one parent.

The American study recruited 5,000 children and their parents in large cities. Even allowing for economic disadvantage, data began to show the impact of instability on a child’s life.

Those whose parents had divorced were more likely to fail to progress at school.

And children who were in what the researchers called a ‘fragile family’, where parents were cohabiting or there was a lone parent, were twice as likely not to graduate from high school.

The study was overseen by Professor Sara McLanahan, who was a single parent herself for 10 years, after her first marriage ended in divorce.

She is now Professor of sociology at Princeton University, in the US, where she has led the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.

Prof. McLanahan said the data showed that even a child in a stable single-parent household was likely to do worse on some measures than a child of a married couple.

And she stated it’s not a question of poverty. She said, ‘There is still a difference between the outcomes of children born to single-parent households, versus married or cohabiting, even when you take into account they tend to be from poorer homes’.

Here in the UK, in the year 2000, 19,000 children were recruited with their parents into the Millennium Cohort Study.

The children in the study are assessed every year for basic skills such as numeracy and literacy. On both the basic education skills and the outcomes, children of single parents appear to be worse.

Lead researcher Professor Emla Fitzsimons, from the Institute of Education said, ‘We measure their wellbeing levels, of depressive symptoms, of how they’re feeling, their levels of anxiety and so on. And we tend to see they’re also doing worse on that dimension’.