By: Mary A. Brown
Cohabitating Parents – Is it Better or Worse for Children
I am a single father who has a great relationship with my children and my children’s mother. My kids are happy, healthy and financially secure. That is my situation, but I have friends who are in different relationships. Some are divorced from their children’s mother and living with someone else who has children. Some are living or cohabitating with their children’s mother. In some cases, regardless of the relationship, everything seems to work out for the kids. However there are other circumstances where the children are struggling in school or with behavior problems; I often wonder if things would be different if the parents were married and not living together. Personally I don’t think children living with unmarried parents are worse off than those living with parents who are married or divorced. However, while researching this paper, it seems I am in the minority in this thinking. According to an article in the New York Times released in August 2011, couples who have children and live together have increased twelve times the number in 1970. In other words more children have unmarried parents than those who have divorced parents.[i] The National Marriage Project, prepared by folks at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values, and includes data from the Census Bureau and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that “the rise of cohabitation is a growing risk for children, and that their lives are less stable in such families.”[ii] It is interesting to note that 42 percent of children lived with cohabitating parents by the age of twelve compared to 24 percent with divorced parents, according to the National Survey of Family Growth. Class seems to dictate who cohabitates as persons with only high school degrees are more likely to cohabitate than college graduates.[iii] Cohabitating and having children seem to rise in the 1960s mostly in poor communities; now, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, there are many cohabitating couples in working and lower middle class families. Wilcox’s studies seem to indicate that there is a “two family concept emerging – educated and affluent persons have somewhat strong, stable families, while less educated persons will likely have unstable, unworkable ones.”[iv] Based on the research Wilcox believes that cohabitating parents are twice more likely to break up than married parents. Cohabitating relationships and out of wedlock children seem to run the gamut across all races of women. The National Marriage Project reports that 34 percent of white women had out of wedlock children in the late 2000s compared to 5 percent in 1982. White women, who had babies, and living in cohabitating relationships increased by two-thirds from the 1990s to the mid-2000s. That number jumped by more than half for Black women and doubled for Hispanic women; however many of the Hispanic women were immigrants from other countries, according to the report. What does this mean for children living with cohabitating parents? The journal of Marriage and Family and Sociology of Education released studies showing that “children in cohabiting families tend to perform worse in school and be less psychologically healthy than those whose parents are married.”[v] Wilcox noted that children in cohabitating families, whose parents break up and those whose parents get divorced have to deal with a lot of the same social, educational, and psychological problems resulting from those breakups. The significant difference, according to Wilcox, is the number of reported cases of child abuse in cohabitation households with a...