Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Fathers, Mothers, and Family Structure: Family Trajectories, Parent Gender, and Adolescent Schooling

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Fathers, Mothers, and Family Structure: Family Trajectories, Parent Gender, and Adolescent Schooling

Article excerpt

Previous research has neither fully examined family structure across the life course nor considered increasing variation in family types. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (N = 11,318), I examine the influence of longitudinal measures across childhood of family structure duration and the number and timing of parent transitions (entrances and exits) on indicators of grade point average (GPA), college expectations, and suspension or expulsion in adolescence. I also examine whether parent gender moderates these effects. Results show that mother transitions during early childhood affect all outcomes, whereas time in mother-absent families influences GPA and school discipline. I find evidence for parent gender differences in transition effects; mother transitions, especially early ones, have more severe consequences than father transitions.

Key Words: adolescence, education, family structure, gender, life course, longitudinal.

Growing up without both biological parents is negatively related to educational attainment (Biblarz & Raftery, 1999; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Reduced attainment, especially school failure, is the end result of a process of school disengagement, in which students progressively detach themselves from the goals, attitudes, and behaviors intrinsic in the educational process (Astone & McLanahan, 1991). Studies show that students who are more engaged in the school process attain more years of education (Sewell & Shah, 1968). Children living without both parents show evidence of reduced engagement, such as lower grades, school attendance, and educational aspirations (Astone & McLanahan, 1991).

Despite this extensive evidence, most research is limited by its conceptualization of family structure. Although recent studies have used longitudinal measures to represent the family experiences that might influence educational outcomes (e.g., Krein & Belier, 1988; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Wojtkiewicz, 1993), few have located family structure histories within a single theoretical framework (see Hao & Xie, 2002, for an exception) or considered the increasing variability of family types. Research has concentrated on the consequences of growing up without a resident father because 59% of all children in non-two biological parent families live with single mothers (Kreider & Fields, 2005). An increase in single-father families (Eggebeen, Snyder, & Manning, 1996), however, has attracted attention to children residing without biological mothers (Sousa & Sorensen, 2006), whereas children living with no parents are another understudied family form (Sun, 2003). A systematic and comprehensive examination of children's family structure histories should take into account less common family types, as well as comparisons of family types across parent gender.

I address these limitations using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to examine the effects of family structure and parent gender on measures of adolescent school engagement. I take a life course approach by focusing on structural features of family histories, such as duration, timing, and change. I pose two questions: (a) Do longitudinal measures of family structure duration, timing, and change influence school engagement? (b) Are the effects of mother absence similar to those of father absence?

School Engagement

School engagement reflects the ability to coordinate multiple skills, such as intellectual development, achievement values and goal setting, writing and test-taking proficiency, deference to authority, ability to follow directions, and conforming behavior to school standards (Astone & McLanahan, 1991; Biblarz & Raftery, 1999; Sewell & Shah, 1968). Students who master these skills, measured by school achievement, educational expectations, and appropriate behavior, have higher educational attainment (Astone & McLanahan, 1991; Sewell & Shah). …

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