Does Marriage Matter for Kids?

In our 2005 issue on marriage and child wellbeing, Paul R. Amato described the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits for children growing up with continuously married parents. In contrast, he described how children raised by unmarried parents tend to experience less father involvement and higher rates of poverty and relationship instability. Given these general differences, it might be tempting to conclude that if parents simply marry, then many of the challenges children might face while being raised by unmarried parents will be eliminated.

However, it’s not that simple. Amato cautioned that “increasing the share of children who grow up with continuously married parents would improve the overall well-being of U.S. children only modestly” since family structure is only one causal factor, among many, in children’s lives. Nevertheless, he argued that marriage does matter for children, and even small increases in the share of children growing up with married parents can make meaningful improvements in society.

What about today? Does marriage still matter?

In our 2015 issue revisiting the topic of marriage and child wellbeing, David C. Ribar writes that “the advantages of marriage for children appear to be the sum of many, many parts,” which include mechanisms such as income, wealth, health insurance, social networks, parental stress, and family stability. These tend to be more favorable in the context of marriage and are associated with children’s short-term and long-term wellbeing. While policies and interventions might strengthen unmarried families in these ways, Ribar asserts these and other parts, as a whole, are difficult to replicate for unmarried families, and would only act as partial substitutes for marriage.

In many ways, marriage does seem to matter.

This isn’t to suggest that marriage is perfect and always more ideal than nonmarital relationships. Ribar cautions us that the “benefits of marriage occur mainly in families with low levels of conflict.” Clearly, the quality of relationships should be taken into account when thinking about how parental relationships affect children.  Indeed, in this same issue, Wendy D. Manning explains that stable cohabiting families with two biological parents are able to provide many of the same benefits to their children as their married counterparts.

For learn more, see the latest Future of Children issue, “Marriage and Child Wellbeing Revisited.”

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