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Are Wedding Bells a Prerequisite For Raising Healthy Kids?

A new study says kids are worse off with unmarried, cohabiting parents. But it's not because their folks haven't tied the knot.

Today, NPR reported that kids living with unmarried, cohabitating parents are worse off than children of married parents. According to a new study, kids of unmarried parents are more likely to have trouble in school and experience psychological stress, physical abuse and poverty. The National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values also found that while divorce rates have dropped since the late 1970s, the number of cohabitating families has soared, especially among lower socioeconomic classes. More than 40 percent of babies are now born to unwed mothers, and a quarter of mothers with multiple children got pregnant by more than one man.

This study seems like the ultimate validation for "family values" conservatives—until you look a little closer. As marriage scholar Stephanie Coontz points out, "cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing is as much a symptom of the instability of children's lives as it is a cause of it." She says people are more likely to tie the knot in the first place if their relationship is strong, especially in the financial department.

In other words, now that the cultural pressure of shotgun weddings has eased a little, an unplanned pregnancy is less likely to force people into marriage, especially if they're holding off until they're financially secure. We're marrying later and less often, and although poor women still wed earlier than more affluent ones, they're less likely to do it just because a baby shows up. Income is a huge factor in family stability, and financial security is a huge factor in people's marriage decisions. So it makes sense that the kids of cohabiting couples, who are more likely to be poor, may have a harder family life.

The kicker, a fact that's "a mystery to researchers," is that European cohabitors, who are more common than their counterparts in the United States, have much more stable home lives. Allow me to clear up the mystery: healthy relationships spawn marriages, not the other way around. Europeans may be even less concerned about making it "official" once their union has proven to be successful and enduring. Now that we're a little more cautious about who we marry, couples who don't make it are simply breaking up rather than divorcing.

Sure, a revolving door of partners may not be the best for kids, but as we learned during the Divorce Revolution, matrimony doesn't ward off breakups. The lesson here is one many of us have known for a while: married or not, kids are better off when their parents have a solid relationship and the means to take care of them.

photo (cc) by Flickr user Lee J Haywood

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