This week, demographers from around the world are gathering in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America (PAA), to discuss their research findings on issues related to migration, health, and population wellbeing. Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing is presenting three main initiatives at the conference: The Future of Children, The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, and the Princeton Global Network and Child Migration. The Future of Children published a volume on Fragile Families in fall 2010 and researchers continue to build on these findings using the Fragile Families Study data. One example of such work being presented at PAA is the investigation of the role of genes in explaining child behavior outcomes.
In the Future of Children volume on Fragile Families, Jane Waldfogel, Terry-Ann Craigie, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn suggest that several factors play important roles in explaining why children in families with unmarried parents may have poorer outcomes than those of two married parents. These likely include parental resources, parent relationship quality, parenting quality, parental mental health, and father involvement. Another key element that should be considered is family instability, which refers to whether children grow up with the same parent(s) that were present at birth and tends to be higher among unmarried parents. It is assumed that children will have more positive behavioral outcomes when there are fewer disruptions or new partners entering and exiting the household, but researchers continue to investigate this hypothesis.
One element that has recently gained attention regarding its influence on family stability and child outcomes is genes. To examine the role of genes in child behavior and wellbeing, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, an ongoing birth cohort study of about 5,000 children and their parents, the majority of whom are unmarried, collected DNA samples from the children and their mothers around the time of the child’s ninth birthday. These genetic data, which will made available through a contract process this fall, are being analyzed with respect to their role in the relationship between family stability and child behavioral outcomes. Early analyses find evidence that genes moderate the relationship between family instability and children’s prosocial behavior. As presented at the Population Association of America, authors Colter Mitchell, Sara McLanahan, Daniel Notterman, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn find evidence that for some genotypes, larger increases in prosocial behavior occur among cases in which a non-resident biological father enters the household and larger decreases in prosocial behavior in cases in which the biological father exits the household.
As indicated in the Future of Children, there are several observable factors that likely explain why children with unmarried parents often fare worse than those of two-parent families, and the link between family instability and genes is only one component of this complex issue. Future research should provide further insight into the role of these and other elements. More literature on the impact of family structure and instability can be found in the Future of Children volumes on Fragile Families and Marriage and Child Wellbeing. Visit the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing website or email firstname.lastname@example.org for information on the Study and updates on the new genetic data. Also, check out www.futureofchildren.org for more publications on child wellbeing.