Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Maternal Cohabitation and Child Well-Being among Kindergarten Children

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Maternal Cohabitation and Child Well-Being among Kindergarten Children

Article excerpt

Using data collected from 10,511 kindergarten children and their parents from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, this study examines child well-being across cohabiting 2-biological-parent families; cohabiting stepfamilies; married stepfamilies; and married 2-biological-parent families. Findings indicate no differences in child well-being for children living in cohabiting stepfamilies and cohabiting 2-biological-parent families. Multivariate models controlling for child characteristics, economic resources, maternal depressive symptoms, stability, and parenting practices show no significant differences across family types in child well-being indicators, with the exception of reading skills. Important factors in explaining the link between cohabitation and child well-being include economic resources, maternal depressive symptoms, and parenting practices.

Key Words: child well-being, cohabitation, family structure.

One of the most notable changes in family life over the last several decades is the rapid rise in cohabitation. Between 1977 and 1997, the rate of cohabitation more than tripled, from 1.5% to 4.8% of all households in the United States (Casper & Cohen, 2000). Children are more likely than ever before to live in a household with a cohabiting parent. Recent estimates suggest that 5% of children currently live in a cohabiting household and that, at some point during their youth, nearly two out of five children will reside with a cohabiting parent (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Graefe & Lichter, 1999; Raley, 2001). These trends raise questions about how children fare in cohabiting households. Over the last few years, scholars have begun to study the link between cohabitation and child well-being (Brown, 2004; Dunifon & Kowaleski-Jones, 2002; Manning & Lamb, 2003; Thomson, Hanson, & McLanahan, 1994). These studies generally find that children in cohabiting families fare worse academically and behaviorally in comparison to children in stepfamilies or intact married families.

Despite this increased attention to children's well-being in the context of a cohabiting family, the mechanisms that underlie the link between cohabitation and child outcomes are unclear. This article examines how economic resources, family stability, mothers' mental health, and parenting practices may explain the link between cohabitation and child development. Because the characteristics of people who marry are different from the characteristics of those who cohabit, however, selection effects may underlie differences between cohabiting and married families (see Seltzer, 2000; Smock, 2000, for reviews).

Because the bulk of research on cohabitation and child well-being has focused on cohabiting stepfamily households, where the parent is cohabiting with a partner who is unrelated to the child, we know little about how children fare in cohabiting two-biological-parent households. Most children who live with both biological parents who have never married are aged 6 years or younger; so this family form is especially important to examine when studying younger children (Brown, 2002). Young children in this family context may experience substantial challenges in economic resources, household stability, maternal depressive symptoms, and parenting practices, and these factors may in turn affect child well-being.

The purpose of this study is to examine young children in cohabiting households and how they fare relative to their peers in married households. National data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K) are used to evaluate child well-being in cohabiting households. These data, collected by the Department of Education, are nationally representative of all kindergarten students in the United States during the 1998 - 1999 academic year. The ECLS-K data are ideally suited for this project because the data include extensive measures of both child outcomes and important predictors, as well as a sufficient number of cases to distinguish between cohabiting two-biological-parent families and cohabiting stepfamilies. …

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