Shocking News: Marriage is Good For Children!

There have been some strange rumblings on this blog as of late.

The rumblings have been about my conservative “pro-marriage” stance and my obvious disdain for single people.

I will quickly dismiss with both of these by saying that if I looked down on single people, I’d have no clients and fewer friends.

Plus, I’d be a hypocrite, since I was single for 35 years before getting hitched 3 years ago.

So, no, I don’t look down on single people. However, that doesn’t mean that I think single people are in the best position to raise kids.

Which is why the commentary about how I’m suddenly “conservative” for believing in marriage is so absurd.

Have we really gone that far away from reality that conservatives “own” the marriage issue? Are liberals really advocating for a world in which nobody gets married, nobody gets bad grades, and nobody passes judgment on anybody else? Because if that’s the case, we liberals are fighting a foolish and losing battle. It’s important to pay attention to science, which, at its best, should simply reflect reality.

I’m a die-hard liberal who believes that when it comes to raising kids, marriage is in important institution. This isn’t my reality. This is reality.

Note that I did not say that everyone has to be married or there’s something wrong with you if you’re not.

Note that I did not say that it was impossible for millions of non-married families to raise perfectly good children.

Note that I did not say that marriage is at all a guarantee of happiness and stability.

I am saying that, overall, if you’re going to raise children, they are more likely to turn out healthy if they come from a loving two-parent household. And, since most relationships that last for thirty years in which people raise children together are called “marriage”, that’s the term that I’m choosing to use today.

Here’s a paper from the Marriage and Religion Research Institute that cites 20 different independent studies that verify that children from married couples fare better in school, in behavior, and in life, overall.

This is not to suggest that two people in a miserable marriage should stay together strictly for the kids. This is only to suggest that the institution of marriage – far from being obsolete – tends to produce healthier children overall than children who are born raised in alternative ways (grandmother, cohabiting, single parent, for example.)

To clarify one last time, I’m not saying it’s not possible for kids from alternate homes to turn out great (Thank you President Obama!), but rather that if studies show that marriage tends, in general, to be a stabilizing force for children, why would this be a controversial stance? Are facts that contradict your personal narrative that hard to digest? I sure hope not.

For example, if you think that, since getting married, I’m blindly pro-marriage, you would be incorrect. I’m pro-marriage for people who are confident, self-aware, self-sacrificing, and willing to make smart trade-offs, especially in service of raising children. I’m anti-marriage for anyone who a) doesn’t want to be married and b) doesn’t have the capacity to be a good partner in life, with all that entails. I’d much rather have fewer good marriages than more bad marriages (which usually result from two people who feel chemistry but haven’t stopped to consider whether they’re truly compatible).

Further evidence that marriage isn’t a panacea comes from David Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow: “There was no overall difference in experienced well-being between women who lived with a mate and women who did not…Women who have a mate spend less time alone, but also much less time with friends. They spend more time making love, but also more time doing housework, preparing food and caring for children. And of course, the large amount of time married women spend with their husband is much more pleasant for some than others. Experienced well-being is on average unaffected by marriage, not because marriage makes no difference to happiness, but because it changes some aspects of life for the better and others for the worse.”

No argument here. But that is about whether married women are happier, not whether kids are better off with two parents at home.

And studies like the one above suggest that they are.

I, for one, am much better equipped to raise my daughter with my wife than either of us are to raise her without each other. And the fact that we’re married, not merely cohabiting, affirms our commitment to each other and our daughter and makes it more real and tangible. The fact that many marriages fail doesn’t mean that marriage isn’t a more serious commitment than “living together”.

So without repeating the fallacious ad hominem attacks – and trying to shoot down the source of the studies, which is another common trope from those who don’t like their conclusions – let’s consider one question:

What advantages are there to raising children without the stable, two-parent household which is most commonly known as “marriage”?

Sorry, but I’m coming up dry.

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  1. 1

    I’m a divorced mother of 2 children whose father is completely out of the picture.   He doesn’t communicate with them nor does he pay child support.   And I will be the first to tell anyone who asks that a loving two-parent marriage is a much better place for 2 children to grow up in.   I think I do pretty well; my children are happy, healthy, and fairly well adjusted.   But it’s not an easy road and there are times my children don’t get something they need as quickly as I would like because I’m doing it by myself.   I’m fortunate that I have male family members to help out.   But I don’t think my children are better off for being raised in a single parent household.   So thank you, Evan, because it’s absolutely true.   Children are much better off growing up in a marriage of two people who love, help, and support each other and the children.   Can they be raised adequately and be healthy and well adjusted without married parents?   Of course!   But who would want to if they can instead be in a loving marriage to the other parent and benefit both themselves and the children in that way?

  2. 2

    Agreed, Evan.   Sadly for many of us, it comes down to do we want to be with some guy who isn’t actually a good match for us, or do we want to have a child on our own.   And… please stop using conservative like it’s a dirty word.   Many of those who follow your blog count ourselves as conservatives.

  3. 3

    Thank you Henriette regarding the conversative ‘label’.   I don’t even know the context for which it’s being used, as liberal and conservative in my world means very different political philosophies, and it’s being used in a societal sense consistently in the blog.   There’s very little tolerance here, that’s for sure!   But it’s my blog and I can leave any time.

    It’s also very interesting  how one’s outlook can  change when circumstances and adult responsibilities start to kick in.

    Personally, having a child  with just one parent to me is  self centered.   Children  benefit from both a male and female consistent influence.   Over  the years, there’s been a concerted  effort  to dismiss men from society as being unneeded and  useless.      Even being divorced  doesn’t sit well with me.   I wish I would have been more patient with waiting  for a man that was more suitable to me.  

  4. 4

    I don’t see information like this as inherently judgmental. I know a lot of single parents who do a great job, but there’s no question that their lives are harder and their children have to make do with less time and attention, in most cases. For that reason alone, I don’t see the appeal of voluntary becoming a single parent. I understand the biological imperatives of a woman approaching middle age, but taking on a child at a time when many parents are seeing their children leave the nest is a huge commitment and one that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.

  5. 5

    And the lessons the children learn from watching their parents negotiate with each other, compromise, apologize, reconcile, poke fun at, as well as  see that the relationship is still strong and survives intense moments… these are all absorbed by the children through osmosis and they pick up necessary partner skills. With a partner missing, even when the parent is superior, there are missing lessons. My mother was widowed when I was five. She and my father had a strong, loving, mutually beneficial and agreeable marriage and they compromised often. As hard as my mother tried, she could not make up for his absence. My older sister and I fared better than my younger sister, who did not have a memory of her father.

    Oh, and another thing two parents have over a single is the ability to accept/receive help and ask for help from the partner. This proposition becomes awkward when a single parent.

  6. 6

    Funny that the one post that gets me to comment has nothing to do with dating, as I find your advice in that department right on. This whole marriage single-family household? Not so much. However, the stance taken is a very Western/anglo stance. How about communities that tend to raise their children together? Though both my divorced parents were in the picture (one more than the other), the rearing responsibility was split between my parents and my maternal grandparents. By this, I don’t mean the occasional visits and presents from grandparents, but fully being brought up by grandparents + single mom + single dad. This is not uncommon in many cultures around the world, such as the Hispanic culture (to which I belong). This is all to say that being single does not immediately equate to having an unstable (as you use the term “without a stable”), 1 parent household. I think there is an problem in the underlying assumption that lack of marriage=single parent home. Without it, the argument doesn’t hold. Do love all your writing on dating though! 😉

  7. 7

    Your headline should read:” A good marriage is good for children'”

    Unfortunately noone has a crystal  ball so it  can happen that the man of your dreams with whom you have 3 children is a cheater and emotionally abusive and no longer wants the suburban life with  a wife and kids but a single life in a city. You can  only do so much work to  save a marriage if the other person is not willing to so the same.

    So yeah, kids also do better when they are in financially stable homes, they are good looking, athletic and get good grades. Unfortunately the real world isn’t   prefect so you  do the  best with the hand that you are dealt.     

    Studies have shown that children are better off in stable one parent homes than  in homes with parents who have a poor or abusive  relationship.            

    1. 7.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      One other point – no one suggested that people should stay in bad marriages.

      The takeaway is not to have kids with someone who’s a bad partner; yet millions – nay, BILLIONS – of people do. It’s not a perfect method, but there’ll be fewer kids born into adverse circumstances if people thought a little bit ahead.

  8. 8

    Ah, well, I can’t stand kids, never wanted ’em and don’t have them, so this is a non issue for me.   However,   I argue that unhappy marriages in which people claim to stay in for that age old reason of it being for “the sake of the children* is crap though.   My parents had a miserable marriage, my brother and I were well aware of it, and I don’t see how  my unhappy parents stayingtogether  enhanced our childhood, other than the obvious financial stability that a family situation creates.   My parents did finally divorce, way after we were all grown up, and I only wondered why they hadn’t done it sooner!

  9. 9

    Has anyone ever explained that correlation does not imply causation?
    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that conditions that are harmful to a marriage’s longevity may also be harmful to the educational prospects of a child to that marriage.
    In fact, I would argue that they’ve given the evidence to prove that marriage is not the key factor here, but it is more likely to be down to economic factors (sources 28-31), and perhaps marriages suffer when the household economy is in bad shape.     Source 28 in the list (one of only a few where the pdf file is freely available) talked about a term used by economists called the “marriage premium” but nowhere demonstrated that people experience a wage-earning boost on marrying, only that being married is correlated with having higher earnings than those in similar occupations and of similar age.     My reasoning is that being better-paid makes it easier to get married, rather than getting married results in higher pay.
    The conclusions drawn do not seem to be supported by the evidence, and I would argue that for similar social background and income levels per person in the household, then there is probably not going to be a significant difference.     I don’t know of any studies that have been done to try to demonstrate this, but that would be my guess after looking at the evidence presented in the MARRI list.
    What advantages are there to raising children without the stable, two-parent household which is most commonly known as “marriage”?
    Well, I’m going to say that I believe that most of your advantages for the two-parent household are nebulous at best.     Why do you need a marriage certificate to affirm a commitment?     For a person who is, “confident, self-aware, self-sacrificing, and willing to make smart trade-offs, especially in service of raising children” surely the commitment would be enough in itself, you don’t need something from outside to “affirm” it.
    And if two parents are better equipped together to raise a child than one alone, then why not three parents, or four, or fifteen?     Surely, the same argument could be made to suggest that polyamory or polygamy is an even stronger family setting – or perhaps, a commune life where all adults in the local community are responsible for the collective upbringing of all children, with no biological favouritism?
    Perhaps, for a single parent with the equivalent income per family member of a monogamous nuclear family structure, there would be some advantages.    Here are a couple of ideas off the top of my head that may or may not have any truth to them (but are as well-founded as some of the suggestions above in favour of 2-parent structures): It would be far easier to be consistent in things like discipline and values imparted – no difficulties of one parent seeming to overrule another on any of those matters.     Also, no divided affections between family members with the Freudian rivalry scripts that may or may not arise from that.

    1. 9.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      Snowdrop – so you just explained your feelings about why marriage is obsolete. Unfortunately, for you, kids who come from married households fare better in life. See the NY Times article above. This isn’t my opinion I’m expressing. Which is why it’s always amazing that people want to argue for some devil’s advocate position – like the woman on my Facebook page who said that because men’s sperm is “worse” when they get older, it’s a good thing that 23-year-olds are having kids out of wedlock. Yeah, that’s some sound logic.

      So while marriage is not a cure-all; it does happen to provide for the best structure for raising kids in the U.S.

  10. 10

    “Thought a little bit ahead?”   Duh Evan. Look at my post @8 above.

    Are you are saying divorced people didn’t at one time think they’d be married with children  forever? Ridiculous. Noone, and  that means  you included, can foretell  what the future brings. You cannot predict the future behaviors of another person, even if it is your spouse. Period.  It’s nice you flaunt your “perfect” family life, but with so many marriages that don’t work out, you are not immune from anything.       

    1. 10.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      To anyone who is annoyed by the simplicity of my statement: “choose a better partner and don’t have kids with a bad one”:

      I think it’s quite obvious that life will throw us all a few curves. He loses his job. She is clinically depressed. Their kid has autism. She grows, he doesn’t. He cheats, etc.

      All I’m suggesting is that, since you can’t control what happens in 30 years, you CAN make better decisions from the get-go.

      And if everyone waited 3 years for the excitement, passion, and chemistry to wear off and THEN made decisions about character, commitment, marriage and kids, there would be a lot fewer bad marriages, divorces, and kids borne out of passionate irresponsibility to ill-matched parents.

  11. 11

    Evan, I know you’re taking a lot of heat for this (which I don’t quite understand why… I guess I never saw what was so controversial about saying that the best situation for a child is having good mother AND father in his or her life who are committed to each other through marriage)… but I just want to say thank you for standing for quality marriages and for the importance of good fathers in a child’s life.
    You mentioned Barack Obama in your post and I know a lot of people try to use him as an example of absentee fatherhood not having any negative long-term effects on a child. But I notice something else… notice that Barack did NOT want to repeat that situation for his own family and entered into a marriage before he had children.
    If you don’t mind, I’d like to post an excerpt of one of his Father’s Day speeches. He honors his non-traditional family and the work his mother and grandparents did (although I notice he never mentions how much he was molded by a loving stepfather as well), but is clear to say that he did not want his own children to go through what he id.
    “I know what it means to have an absent father, although my circumstances weren’t as tough as they are for many young people today. Even though my father left us when I was 2 years old, and I only knew him from the letters he wrote and the stories that my family told, I was luckier than most. I grew up in Hawaii, and had two wonderful grandparents from Kansas who poured everything they had into helping my mother raise my sister and me – who worked with her to teach us about love and respect and the obligations we have to one another. I screwed up more often than I should’ve, but I got plenty of second chances. And even though we didn’t have a lot of money, scholarships gave me the opportunity to go to some of the best schools in the country. A lot of kids don’t get these chances today. There is no margin for error in their lives. So my own story is different in that way.
    Still, I know the toll that being a single parent took on my mother – how she struggled at times to the pay bills; to give us the things that other kids had; to play all the roles that both parents are supposed to play. And I know the toll it took on me. So I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle – that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father to my girls; that if I could give them anything, I would give them that rock – that foundation – on which to build their lives. And that would be the greatest gift I could offer.”

  12. 12

    EMK: That’s a great takeaway — just don’t have kids with someone who’s a bad partner.   So, what’s the time frame for determining this?   You’ve already waited a certain amount of time (enough to decide they were worthy of marriage–in my case years).   Then what, wait a year to have kids?   Five years?   Ten years?   At   what point do you say this is a good partner to have kids with?   Problems in marriages sometimes show up immediately, sometimes after many years.   Abusive behavior, addicitons, cheating, gambling, and along list of more mundane problems.   So if you have kids after one year of marriage, and then your spouse cheats on you or becomes an alcoholic, your answer is that I shouldn’t have had kids with him in the first place.   I should have known better.

    I realize I’ve stretched a bit what you said, but your takeaway came off a bit judgmental, implying people (women) don’t “think ahead.”   I don’t, in theory, disagree that all else being equal, a stable two-parent family is good for kids.   But what happens when your wife cheats on you in another year and you decide a divorce is in your best interest.   Should you not have had a child with her?

  13. 13

    Well, read Cherlin if you want more info.  He’s one of the nation’s most prominent sociologists studying the topic. He says that countless studies show that it’s  the stability  of a child’s relationships and not the form those relationships take that is key to the well-being of the child. So a child  who is raised by her  grandmother, or a child who is raised by his single mother (without a lot of revolving door romances), would do as well emotionally and academically  as a  child raised in a nuclear family setting. Also, if the nuclear family setting is dysfunctional the child does less well, a finding that suggests that it’s the quality of home life, and not the form that it takes, that harms or helps a child’s development.  

  14. 14

    Ha!   Well, I’d imagine that when you are standing at the altar saying your I do’s you aren’t thinking or imagining that you are, down the road, going to be having children with a “bad partner”, you are thinking, like most couples at that stage, that this is for life and happily ever after.   So saying not to have kids with bad partners is really oversimplifying things.  
    The person who makes a great partner at twenty, may or may not still be a great partner at 30 or 40, and that’s just the sad fact of it.   In an idyllic world, there would be perfect marriages and perfect children and all would be happy, happy. Just because my parents’ marriage didn’t end up as one of those perfect statistics doesn’t mean that I, or my brother shouldn’t have come to be.   Thinking ahead to avoid a bad marriage and less than ideal circumstances for your kids…please.   You know  that human emotions don’t play out that easily and by the book!   Life is messy, relationships are  up and down,  and none of that will ever change.   You take a leap of faith when you commit to  even the most thought out relationships.   You find your way, and that is life.

  15. 15

    Reading the New York Times article, what I noticed was that the women were involved with men from the beginning who had not shown themselves to good long-term material. So while it was probably best that they did not marry these men, the disconnect in my mind is that they had no issue dating and sleeping with men, who, in their own words, were basically losers.
    That’s completely different from dating and marrying a man who changes and leaves after 10 years. These women knew from the beginning that these men were not ones they’d ever consider marrying, but they still proceeded to have sexual relationships with them.
    I realize as well that in poorer communities, maybe the mindset is different about long-term life planning, so these men and women are simply acting on the reality around them.  
    But I think the lesson for anyone (including the readers of this blog) is that there can be serious repercussions for remaining in a relationship with the wrong man.

  16. 16

    You’re conflating the stable two-person household with marriage.
    As a 50% divorce rate indicates, getting married is not a good predictor of a stable relationship.
    (The MaRRI study conveniently lumps failed marriages together with co-habiting unmarried and single parents, so they can pick only the stable marriages by looking backwards in time. If predictions were that easy. )

    You haven’t addresses Snowdrop’s argument that stable marriage and successful childrearing may be merely correlated. In fact, the NYT article (page 2) hints that both stable marriages and successful childrearing are caused by the same root factors.

    I’ll be interested in a study that controls for scioeconomic status and all the other things that influence stability of relationships when they try to figure out if marriage is in fact a good predictor for successful childrearing.

    It is not surprising that couples who are in a relationship and planning their future and are also planning to get children (as opposed to “oops, my birthcontrol failed while I was in an on-off relationship” sob stories of the NYT article’s page 1) often also get married to reap the societal   and financial incentives that marriage offers.

    But neither the MaRRI study nor the NYT article present convincing proof that, all else being equal, marriage makes a relationship more suited for childrearing than any other stable household.

  17. 17

    TL;DR version:

    “And if everyone waited 3 years for the excitement, passion, and chemistry to wear off and THEN made decisions about character, commitment, […] and kids, ”

    things would be just as great with or without marriage.    

  18. 18

    I was with my first husband for 3 years before I married him. I was with my second husband 7 years before I married him. I ended up divorcing both of them, even though I’d hardly say I rushed into either of those marriages.  I didn’t   have kids with either of them so hey! guess what??! I am now 47   and have ended up with no husband….AND no kids! All very responsible as far as not ending up a single parent is concerned, but would people consider this a good outcome??! Those of us who don’t have children are constantly questioned as to “why?” as if we are freaks, and are vilified by society just as much as the single moms are…. you can’t win.

  19. 19
    Evan Marc Katz

    DFL – I don’t think there’s an effective controlled study for what you’re talking about.

    The fact remains – whether YOU agree with marriage or not – that the VAST majority of people who stay together for 30 years and raise kids ARE married.

    So to worry about the small percentage of stable nuclear families who are NOT married is to largely miss the point.  

    In other words: do you need a ring on your finger to be committed for 30 years and be a good, committed partner and father?   No.

    Do most men who choose to be committed partners and fathers get married? Yes.

  20. 20

    The one thing that people tend to forget is that – in different parts of the world – there are significant legal advantages for the father of a child to be married to its mother. And for the child to have its parents married at the time of its birth.

    In many countries, if  a child is born outside the country of the  father’s citizenship, it is a lot more difficult (and sometimes impossible) for the child to  be granted the citizenship  of their father unless the father & mother were legally married at the time of the child’s birth. Or the father adopted the child after birth. Same thing applies when it comes to visa’s & emigrating to foreign countries.

    Also:  a father may struggle for the right to be a part of his child’s life when he  was not married to the mother of his child at the time of the child’s birth. A single mother is not obliged to include the father’s name when she registers the birth of the child.  The father then has to prove paternity via DNA tests etc. – which  can prohibitively expensive / unavailable, depending on where you live, and how wealthy you may be.

    I know several men (personal friends of mine) who realized the above (and other pluses) and  therefore chose to make their committed partnership a  marriage, so that their children would have the benefits of married parents.  
    Another friend of mine lost out on being a hands-on Dad to his daughter because he dragged his heels re: getting married. By the time he came to his senses & was about to propose, his girlfriend had given up on him & she broke off the relationship.

    You don’t have to be married to be a good parent. But there are a lot of fringe benefits  that are  good for both the parents and the child if the parents are married.  

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