Cohabitation and Child Development
Universit?, of Chicago
In chap. 8, Manning presents a clear and comprehensive summary of the available research on the nature and characteristics of cohabiting unions and the potential effects of cohabitation on children's development. The number of studies that directly address child well-being in cohabiting unions is quite sparse. Moreover, the available evidence provides but a snapshot of some differences among children in cohabiting unions relative to other living arrangements, along only a few of many relevant dimensions of development. I agree with her conclusion that much more information is needed about how cohabitation relates to children's well being. In my view, future research could begin to address the question of “how” by progressing along one of several different pathways. Here, I focus on the role of individual differences, both among children and among types of cohabiting unions, as well as the role of family functioning and relationships.
Psychologists are interested in the active role of children in their own environments, and in trying to understand why some children adapt positively to certain experiences, whereas others do not. The small number of papers available for Manning to review did not systematically test the role of individual differences in the pattern of associations between cohabitation and children's developmental outcomes. A relative lack of average effects, however, could mask important differences that occur for certain subgroups. Studies of children from divorced and remarried families reveal great diversity in children's responses to marital transitions. Drawing from the larger family structure literature, there is reason to believe that effects could vary according to different attributes of the child. I briefly mention children's developmental status; children's personality, temperament, gender, and race/ethnicity are likely to be important as well.
Numerous aspects of child development could be related to the experience of cohabitation. In my view, an orientation toward examining effects for children at different ages would further the understanding of which outcomes are the most relevant. To give a simple example, given what is known about the deleterious effects of poverty in early childhood (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997), findings on cohabitation's ability to restore family income following a family structure dis-