Family Facts

Aug 8, 2012 by

The annual meeting of the Population Association of America in Washington, D.C. is always an interesting affair when it comes to reading the latest academic wisdom from several thousand demographers, sociologists and other experts on family life in America. The Association along with the Pew Research Center also uses the meeting to present its survey findings on the topics of family meals, cohabitation and of course, divorce. The Association’s own literature says the material presented at the annual conference “should not be taken as the new conventional wisdom, but they do raise valuable questions about substantive issues.”

Researchers Daniel P. Miller and Wen-Jui Han, from Boston University and Columbia University respectively, presented interesting data from an Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to see if the academic performance and behavior of children from kindergarten through eighth grade had a relationship with how often they ate meals with their families. The study results found that there was little or no effect of family meal frequency on a child’s cognitive and behavioral p from kindergarten to eighth grade. Miller and Han also pointed out that their results should be interpreted with caution because their research did not look at older teenagers. Prior contradictory research has suggested that teens who share family meals are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol or to have other behavior problems later in life. One of the Pew Research Center reports on family issues also included data on family meals and found that for parents with children under age 18, 50% say they have dinner every day with some or all of their children, 34% say they have family meals a few times a week, 11% say they do so occasionally and 3% say they never have a family meal at all.

Numerous prior studies have found that t couples who cohabitate before marriage are more likely to get divorced than couples who do not. However, more recent research presented at the conference disputes that conclusion and claims cohabitation may not be as linked to divorce as it was when live-together couples were less common than today.
Pew Research Center reports on the topic found that 44% of adults said they had cohabited and that 64% of those adults who had cohabited said they thought it was a step toward marriage. The Pew report also showed rising public acceptance of cohabitation and found about half of Americans now say the rise in unmarried couples living together makes no difference, or is good for society overall. Another research paper presented by Bowling Green State University researchers Wendy Manning and Jessica Cohen used data from the National Survey of Family Growth to come up with the conclusion that cohabitation is not associated with greater risk of divorce for women who got married since the mid-1990s.  Manning and Cohen noted their work showed that cohabitation no longer influenced marital instability for American women who got married in the last 15 years.

Despite research linking divorce to increased risk of problems for children both in the immediate aftermath of the split and later on in life, researchers at Montclair State University found that although “intergenerational transmission of divorce” has been used to describe the increased risk of divorce for children whose parents divorced, in many cases, a divorce will not raise the risk that children’s relationships will fail. Researchers Constance Gager and Miriam Linver used data from the National Survey of Families and Households that compared the relationship paths of adult children who grew up in different types of households.

The pair looked at children whose parents argued a lot and found that although having high conflict parents is associated with a child’s higher risk of divorce later as an adult,  the researchers also found that whether the parents stayed together or stayed apart also made a difference. Gager and Linver found that children who had high conflict parents are less likely to have experienced a relationship failure or marital dissolution if their parents divorced compared to those children in high conflict families whose parents remained together.

Back in 2007 a Pew Research Center report made the news with the findings that while 58% of Americans think divorce is preferable to staying in an unhappy marriage, 67% also thought that children are better off when their parents get divorced if the marriage is particularly unhappy. Recent research suggests those numbers are about the same today, and that the structure of the average American family has not changed drastically in the last half decade.


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