Academic journal article Demographic Research

Parental Separation and Children's Education in a Comparative Perspective: Does the Burden Disappear When Separation Is More Common?

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Parental Separation and Children's Education in a Comparative Perspective: Does the Burden Disappear When Separation Is More Common?

Article excerpt


Sociological and demographic investigations have repeatedly shown that parental breakup has negative effects on offspring. Children of separated parents, in comparison with children from two-parent families, have lower scores with respect to various dimensions of well-being (Amato and Keith 1991b), attain less education (Evans, Kelley, and Wanner 2001; Fischer 2007; Fronstin, Greenberg, and Robins 2001; Fucík 2016; Keith and Finlay 1988; Liu 2007), work in occupations of lower prestige, and have lower earnings (Amato and Keith 1991a; Fischer 2007), although this last finding may not be true for all genders (see Kiernan 1997).

While the negative impact of parental separation on children's life chances is welldocumented, less is known about long-term trends and cross-country differences in the strength of this effect. In this paper, we develop hypotheses on the change in the size of the negative effect of parental breakup over successive cohorts. We then generalize these arguments to differences across countries by linking variations in the association between parental breakup and children's university graduation to the prevailing divorce rate. We test these hypotheses using both fixed-effect and random-effect multivariate models applied to data from 13 countries and four birth cohorts from cross-nationally harmonized surveys organized under the Generations and Gender Programme.

We found that the negative effect of parental separation on children's odds of graduating from university increases over birth cohorts and is stronger in contexts (countries/cohorts) where separation is more common. This finding can be attributed to the declining levels of conflict accompanying separation and to the changing composition of the population of dissolving families. As the rate of parental separation increases, even couples with a lesser degree of conflict break up (Gähler and Palmtag 2015). The dissolution of a high-conflict family may be a relief for the child, as well as for the parents (Amato and Hohmann-Marriott 2007). The breakup of a low-conflict family, on the other hand, is more likely to harm the child (Amato, Loomis, and Booth Demographic Research: Volume 36, Article 3

1995; Booth and Amato 2001; Hanson 1999; Jekielek 1998). As the incidence of family instability increases, the relative representation of low- and high-conflict couples among dissolving families changes: more and more low-conflict families split up, and the negative effects of breakup are encountered more frequently. At the population level, the negative consequences outweigh the positive, and the overall (average) negative effect becomes stronger as a result.

2.Parental separation and children's socioeconomic disadvantage

Researchers have offered three main explanations as to why parental breakup negatively correlates with children's educational attainment. One line of reasoning focuses on the stress associated with parental breakup, another emphasizes the economic and social deprivation associated with the changing household structure, and the last highlights selection into the breakup of parents with specific pre-existing qualities (Amato 1993, 2000).

Some authors emphasize that parental conflict before and during separation and the resulting stress are responsible for the negative outcomes in children (Amato 1993; Biblarz and Raftery 1999). Not only do offspring generally suffer from witnessing parental quarrels, but they are also directly involved and are forced to "choose sides." The relationship between children and parents deteriorates as a result. Parental conflict can also serve as a bad behavioural and problem-solving example (Amato 1993). Children's school outcomes are negatively impacted as a consequence.

The parental-adjustment perspective - an extension of the parental-conflict-andstress argument - emphasizes the pivotal role of the psychological adjustment of the custodial parent after separation (Amato 1993). …

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