Cohabitation and Children's Externalizing Behavior in Low-Income Latino Families

By Fomby, Paula; Estacion, Angela | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Cohabitation and Children's Externalizing Behavior in Low-Income Latino Families


Fomby, Paula, Estacion, Angela, Journal of Marriage and Family


We consider the association of cohabitation experience with externalizing behavior among children of Latina mothers whose ethnic origin is in Mexico, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic. Data were drawn from three waves of the Three-City Study (N = 656 mother-child pairs). Children of Mexican-origin mothers had greater externalizing problems in childhood and adolescence when their mothers were born in the United States or had immigrated as minors. For children of Caribbean-origin mothers, being born to a cohabiting or married mother had a statistically equivalent association with externalizing behavior when mothers were born outside the mainland United States (Dominican and island-born Puerto Rican mothers). Children of mainland-born Puerto Rican mothers had more behavior problems when their mothers cohabited at birth.

Key Words: cohabitation, externalizing behavior, family structure, Latinos.

Increasingly, cohabitation is a context for family formation. By the late 1990s, approximately 18% of all births in the United States and more than half of nonmarital births were to cohabiting parents (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008), and about 40% of children were expected to spend some time residing in a cohabiting couple household before age 16 (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). As cohabiting families have become more common, social scientists have sought to understand how cohabitation influences child well-being. A recent body of research has documented that children born to or raised by cohabiting parents are more likely to exhibit behavior problems across the early life course (Artis, 2007; Brown, 2004; Dunifon & KowaleskiJones, 2002; Manning & Lamb, 2003; Nelson, Clark, & Acs, 2001). The lower level of material and parental resources and higher risk of union dissolution in cohabiting households compared to married-parent households explains much of the disadvantage in children's behavior (Artis, 2007; Brown, 2004).

These explanations may be less powerful in explaining the behavior disadvantage of non-White children in cohabiting households because the profile and social context of cohabiting families varies by race and ethnicity. In particular, Latino children in cohabiting households are more likely to demonstrate emotional and behavioral problems than are children in married households (Nelson et al., 2001), but Latino cohabiting and married families are more similar in terms of socioeconomic characteristics and pregnancy intention compared with other ethnic groups (Manning, 2001; Manning & Brown, 2006; Manning, Smock, & Majumdar, 2004), and there is some evidence that family formation in cohabitation is more normative among Latinos than among non-Latino whites (Manning, 2001; Oropesa, 1996). Further, place-of-origin differences in nuptiality regimes and nativity differences in acculturation and socioeconomic characteristics potentially imply distinctive experiences of cohabitation for subgroups of Latino children, a source of variation that is masked when Latinos are grouped in a single ethnic category and compared with non-Latino whites (McLoyd, Cauce, Takeuchi, & Wilson, 2000; Vega, 1990).

Focusing on Latino children, we assess the utility of explanations that have been put forward to explain the behavior disadvantage experienced by children with cohabiting parents and to consider the extent to which our findings align with an argument about variation in the institutionalization of cohabitation among Latinos. Specifically, we focus on the association of cohabitation experience with externalizing behavior among children of low-income mothers whose ethnic origin is in Mexico, Puerto Rico, or die Dominican Republic. We describe the variation among Latino children on two axes: ethnicity and mother's nativity. We discuss differences in the social location of cohabitation in places of origin and investigate the extent to which mothers' attitudes about marriage and nonmarital childbearing, social connectedness, family complexity, and union stability explain any behavioral disadvantage among children with cohabiting parents. …

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