Does marriage matter for children?

Does marriage matter for children?

Media release — 16 November 2011

New research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies finds that children of married couples have higher levels of learning and social and emotional development than children of de-facto parents or single mothers.

However, according to the authors, the differences in children's development were explained by the family's financial circumstances, mother's educational level and parenting approaches rather than the marital status of their parents.

The study by Australian Institute of Family Studies researchers, Lixia Qu and Ruth Weston analysed data collected on almost 5,000 children across Australia, from the time the children were 4-5 years old until they were 8-9 years old.

"The study shows that 31 per cent of the married mothers had a university degree or higher level of education compared to 15 per cent of single and cohabiting mothers," she said.

"Married mothers were also more likely to be employed and married couple families were less likely to experience financial hardships.

"A family's financial circumstances are clearly very important for the wellbeing of the children.

De-facto parent families were slightly worse off financially than married parent families but slightly better off than families headed by single mothers.

"However, of particular concern is the fact that the gaps between the children of single mothers and those living with married parents appeared to widen over time."

Ms Weston said the study also compared parents' reports on their approaches to parenting across the three types of families.

"Overall, parents in each of the family forms indicated that they tended to express warmth and affection to their children and enjoyed listening to them and participating in activities with them," she said.

"They also tended to use reasoning with their children, explaining why they were being corrected.

"Although parents in all family types reported some level of anger and difficulty in parenting, this was at much lower levels than the use of reasoning and warmth shown to their children.

"However, differences between the groups emerged regarding the extent to which they adopted a consistent approach to parenting. Married parents reported greater consistency in parenting than de-facto couples or single mothers."

Ms Weston said the results suggest that, regardless of family type, improvements in family income, in mothers' access to education and in parenting skills are likely to benefit a significant proportion of children who are behind in their learning and social and emotional development.

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