Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Instability, Multipartner Fertility, and Behavior in Middle Childhood

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Instability, Multipartner Fertility, and Behavior in Middle Childhood

Article excerpt

Two concepts capture the increasingly dynamic and complex nature of contemporary family structure: family instability and multipartner fertility. Family instability is defined as repeated changes in a child's family structure and is often measured as a count of the entrances and exits by a biological parent's romantic partners or spouses into or out of a child's household (Fomby & Cherlin, 2007; Osborne & McLanahan, 2007; Wu & Martinson, 1993). Multipartner fertility is defined as a parent's experience of having biological children with more than one partner during his or her lifetime (Carlson & Furstenberg, 2006; Guzzo, 2014).

Children's experience of family instability and multipartner fertility has become more frequent in the last half-century in response to rising and then plateauing rates of divorce and remarriage and a steady increase in the prevalence of nonmarital childbearing among unpartnered or cohabiting parents (Cancian, Meyer, & Cook, 2011; Cavanagh, 2008; Osborne & McLanahan, 2007; Ryan & Claessens, 2012). These aspects of family structure change have largely been considered separately, but it is likely that family instability and multipartner fertility co-occur. For example, when a child's parent dissolves one union and begins another, the parent may have an additional child with his or her new partner. Under those circumstances, a child experiences family instability (the dissolution of one union and the formation of another) and multipartner fertility (the addition of a half-sibling to his or her family tree). Each type of family change is associated with children's compromised well-being and particularly with higher rates of externalizing behavior problems, delinquency, and risky behavior across the early life course (Bronte-Tinkew, Horowitz, & Scott, 2009; Carlson & Furstenberg, 2006; Cavanagh & Huston, 2008; Fomby & Cherlin, 2007; Gennetian, 2005; Halpern-Meekin & Tach, 2008; Lee & McLanahan, 2015; Osborne & McLanahan, 2007).

Despite the potential co-occurrence of these phenomena and their shared association with compromised behavior outcomes, little scholarship has considered their independent or common association with child well-being. Rather, these two literatures have developed in parallel, considering separate but related reasons that family instability or multipartner fertility would be associated with children's behavior. We propose that a comprehensive view of dynamic family structure accounting for parents' union status change and multipartner fertility will better characterize children's family systems and potentially expose circumstances in complex families where children may experience diminished access to family-based resources or lower relationship quality with parents and siblings.

We assess the independent association of family instability and multipartner fertility with children's externalizing and delinquent behavior in middle childhood, at age 9. We draw on two theoretical perspectives to consider why family instability and multipartner fertility may each relate to children's behavior: family stress and family boundary ambiguity. Children's externalizing behavior and delinquency are outcomes of particular interest because of their robust association with family instability and multipartner fertility across a range of age groups and social contexts (Bronte-Tinkew et al., 2009; Cavanagh & Huston, 2006; Fomby, 2011; Fomby & Cherlin, 2007; Ryan & Claessens, 2012).


Family instability and multipartner fertility occur among a significant share of U.S. children. Approximately 18% of adolescents interviewed in the mid-1990s had experienced two or more changes in family structure (Cavanagh, 2008), and estimates from a nationally representative sample of children born in 2001 indicate that the prevalence of family instability has held steady or increased since then: About 10% of children had experienced two or more changes in family structure by school entry (Fomby & Cavanagh, 2011). …

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