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Mothers with serial partners

February 25, 2002

“Two Parents Not Always Best for Children, Study Finds,” said the headline in last Thursday’s New York Times. Can this possibly be true? Did my father foolishly put my future happiness at risk by not walking out on my mother, as the Times seems to suggest? Well, no. Not to worry about the peril of two-parent homes. The problem here is in the reporting, or as the Times might put it, “Garbled Journalism Not Always Best for Accuracy.”The Times was reporting on a Johns Hopkins University survey of 2,100 poor people in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio. It’s not a major study. In fact, there’s almost no news in it at all. What seems to be the main finding is crushingly familiar: Children don’t do well if they are raised in homes where mothers keep replacing one live-in boyfriend with another. Researchers found that 42 percent of cohabiting couples broke up within 16 months. This “churning” of boyfriends (a word used by Andrew Cherlin, a well-known family researcher and an author of the study) is so disruptive to children that some might be better off if their mothers quit bringing in new lovers and just stayed single.The problem is that the report used the word “parent” to cover any adult male living in the home with a mother and her child. These males ranged from a married biological father to a lover of the week briefly installed in the home by the mother. This blurring of the word “parent” skews all the numbers on what is happening in the two-parent home, making intact families look unstable when the bulk of the instability comes from cohabitators, especially “churning” ones with no particular commitment to the child. The report contains this sad litle sentence: “It is possible that some partners may not be regarded as parent-figures by the caregiver and child.” No kidding.

If cohabitators and married couples behaved in roughly similar ways, nobody would care about the sloppy use of the word “parent.” But they don’t. An enormous body of research shows that children are far better off growing up with married parents rather than with a mother living with an unrelated male. Compared with married women, cohabiting women are more likely to have problems with drugs, alcohol, depression and sexual faithfulness, as well as violence and other conflict in the home. Their children are far more likely to be beaten or sexually abused. One 1996 study concluded that living with a stepparent or boyfriend “has turned out to be the most powerful predictor of severe child abuse yet.”

Various studies found that cohabitators are two to five times more violent than married couples. The Centers for Disease Control reported that 6 percent of all pregnant women are battered by their “husbands or partners.” Here again, a report obscures reality by lumping together husbands and come-and-go lovers. This key fact was buried in the statistical tables: For every pregnant married woman beaten by her husband, four unmarried pregnant women were beaten by boyfriends. Marriage was the strongest predictor of low rates of abuse in the home — stronger than race, age, housing conditions or educational attainment. Men as well as women are physically safer when married. Children are safer, too, because marriage provides a protective effect that other relationships can’t offer.

This is one of the reasons for President Bush’s initiative to promote marriage education and fatherhood. The point man for the administration, Wade Horn, says: “My central overriding concern is not marriage. It is the well-being of children.” Right. In general, government is not properly concerned with the adult intimate relationships of its citizens. But it should be concerned when those arrangements inflict damage on children. And all indicators show that this damage is much less frequent when children are raised by committed married parents, not single moms or cohabitors.

Both the Johns Hopkins report and the Times’ questionable coverage come just as Washington is beginning to focus on the Bush plan. Both seem to refute Bush’s premise by planting the idea that two parents in the home is not really the answer. Why bother with a reform if both the Times and social science tell us it can’t work?

Andrew Cherlin is quoted as saying that some promotion of two-parent families might be OK, but “poor children in central cities will probably not benefit as much from the trend toward two-parent families.” But his data don’t really show that at all. All he knows for sure is that kids aren’t helped when you apply the word “parent” to all those churning and replaceable boyfriends. Wade Horn knew that all along. I did too.

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