We’ve been hearing for years now that the declining marriage rates for parents do not bode well for children. Recent news that more than half of births to younger mothers occur outside of marriage triggered more anxiety.

Is it the ring that matters to kids most? Or other factors? (iStockphoto)

But new research suggests that a parental marriage certificate may have less significance for a child than we assume. Rebecca Ryan, an assistant professor in Georgetown’s psychology department who studies families, recently published a paper in the journal Child Development that tweaks our widely held views on the subject.

It’s not the marriage certificate that matters, her report suggests. Rather, it’s the characteristics that make parents, and fathers in particular, more likely to be involved in a child’s life that lead to the best outcomes.

“The study suggests that the widely cited correlation between marriage and child well-being belies a more complex descriptive pattern,” the report concludes.

“Specifically, the present study’s findings suggest that if government efforts to promote marriage fail to recognize that parents’ characteristics partly determine their marital status, such efforts risk encouraging parents, and parents-to-be, that being married itself will enhance their children’s development rather than their combined ability to create positive developmental environments.”

I asked Ryan to explain her research and its implications further. Our Q&A is below.

In your view, will the trend of young parents forgoing marriage affect parental involvement?

Children born to unwed parents spend less time with their fathers on average than those born to married parents, and that difference gets larger as children age (unwed fathers are most involved in children’s lives at the very beginning). So, the rise in nonmarital childbirth is related, on average, to lower levels of fathers’ involvement. Overall, however, resident fathers are spending more time with children than ever before. So, it’s not fair to argue that unwed parenthood is associated with an overall decline in father involvement.

Also, unwed parenthood is not necessarily associated with lower levels of mothers’ involvement. Once you account for differences in education and income level between married and single mothers, there are no large differences in maternal involvement with children between these groups. So, the trend seems to impact fathers’ involvement but not mothers’, on average. It’s important to remember, though, that in some families, stepfathers (and stepmothers) are very involved in children’s lives.

Has your research shown a correlation between a marriage certificate and parental involvement? How about a father’s involvement?

I haven’t examined father involvement in married and unwed parent families, but others have. It’s important to distinguish between unwed parents who live together — called cohabiting families — and unwed parents who do not. Many unwed parents live together when their children are born, although the proportion decreases substantially as children age. Cohabiting fathers do spend less time interacting with their children than married fathers, but the largest differences are between married fathers and unwed dads who don’t live with their children, which is not surprising.

What is the correlation between education and parental involvement?

Here the evidence is clearer. Fathers with higher levels of education, and a college degree in particular, spend more time caregiving and interacting with children than less educated men. They do more basic care, like feeding, bathing, changing diapers, than less educated fathers, and they spend more time playing with and teaching children. The same patterns exist for mothers.

In recent years, there have been several public-policy efforts to encourage (heterosexual) marriage presumably to encourage more parental involvement and better outcomes for children. Does your research suggest that those efforts are misguided?

Parental marriage is correlated with more father involvement and better child outcomes, so it makes sense that policymakers would want to promote marriage in the name of those outcomes. But when you account for other differences between married and unwed parents, differences in education level, income and other interpersonal characteristics that impact parenting quality, little of the difference in child outcomes remains (and in some studies no differences remain) . . .

I have found that the association between marriage and children’s cognitive development only exists among those families in which fathers, based on education level and other characteristics, are highly likely to be married anyway. . . . Since fathers’ education level and earning potential is strongly associated with his marital status, and with his involvement in children’s lives, it seems more fruitful for government programs to promote young men’s education and employment prospects. These programs could simultaneously facilitate marriage and positive father involvement.

What are your thoughts on marriage and childhood development? How much do you think the existence, or nonexistence, of a certificate of marriage affect how you parent?

Related content

“Marriage Confidential”: Is parenting killing our marriages?

Fathers’ rights get in the spotlight

Pew study finds fathers increasingly either all in or out