Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Consequences of Young Mothers' Marital Histories for Children's Cognitive Development

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Consequences of Young Mothers' Marital Histories for Children's Cognitive Development

Article excerpt

The research attention paid to adolescent parents and their children stems, in part, from a concern over potentially missed opportunities and hence curtailed achievement for young parents and a worry that this will increase the odds of poor developmental outcomes for children. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, this article focuses on marital histories of young mothers and whether the family structure into which children of young mothers are born and the stability of that arrangement during the child's life affect his or her academic abilities during early school years. Is the marital bond important for children? Do changes in a mother's marital status influence child development? And most importantly, if so, what is the process through which marital history affects child cognitive development? Results suggest children of young mothers are affected by marital histories, although children born and raised within continuously married families do not always show significantly better academic outcomes. Nonmarital childbearing is negatively associated with cognitive performance but affects children primarily through human, economic, and social resources.

Key Words: children's cognitive development, mother's marital histories.

As the recent research of Smith and his colleagues underscores, "one of the greatest changes in the family background of new cohorts of Americans is their parents' marital status at their birth" (Smith, Morgan, & Koropeckyj-Cox, 1996). This holds true especially for children of young mothers. Back in the late 1950s, for example, more than 85% of teen mothers were married by the time they gave birth. In 1990, 59% of the births to White women and 89% of those to Black women aged 15-19 were out of wedlock (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1990). Despite declining birthrates among American teenagers since the peak years of the late 1950s (Nathanson, 1991), close to half a million teenage women give birth each year in the United States. The birthrate among American teens is also much higher than in other comparable Westernized democracies. In 1992, for example, the U.S. teen birthrate was 61 per 1,000 in comparison with a mere 6 per 1,000 in the Netherlands, 9 in France, 15 in Norway, and 32 in Great Britain (Moore, 1995).

The way in which young women choose to resolve their pregnancies has implications for future familial organization (Cooksey, 1990). So too do their subsequent marital decisions because a mother being married at her child's birth does not ensure the presence of two parents throughout childhood, especially when couples marry at young ages (Castro Martin & Bumpass, 1989). Namboodiri (1987) describes early adulthood as "the floundering phase of the life course," and first marriage, divorce, and remarriage rates are all disproportionately concentrated in these young adult years (Rindfuss, 1991). For significant numbers of children, especially those of very young mothers, these types of marital transitions impact their lives heavily because they not only translate into changes in their family and household composition, but also result in changed levels of resources available in their home environment (Menaghan & Parcel, 1995). Further research then shows that a child's home environment can have a profound effect on his or her cognitive development. (See, for example, Bradley & Caldwell, 1984,1987; Parcel & Menaghan, 1990.)

Given the demographic trends of changing marriage, divorce, and remarriage rates and rising levels of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing, recent research has looked at the effects of family composition and family change on various aspects of children's lives. (See, for example, Amato, 1993; Amato & Keith, 1991; Baydar, 1988; Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1994; Cooksey & Fondell, 1996; Demo & Acock, 1988; Furstenberg & Cherlin, 1991; Furstenberg, Morgan, & Allison, 1987; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Mott, 1993, 1994; Seltzer, 1994; Thomson, Hanson, & McLanahan, 1994. …

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