Nonmarital Childbirth: Positive or Negative for the Child?


On Friday, March 23, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University Rebecca Ryan visited St. Mary’s to present her lecture entitled, “Nonmarital Childbirth and Child Development: The Relevance of Marriage Propensity and Family Change.” She discussed how children born with or without parents differ in how they are affected by changes in family structure.

“There has been a steady rise in nonmarital childbirths,” said Ryan as she began her lecture. In 1960, only five percent of children were born to unmarried parents. In 2008, that number had increased to 40 percent. “This represents the greatest shift since the industrial revolution moved families from farms to cities.”

In families with unmarried parents, it is expected that a child will experience more changes in family structure than in families with married parents. Because of this, since 2005, over $150 million has been spent on Healthy Marriage Initiatives to encourage marriage and prevent nonmarital childbirth. These programs are meant to encourage stable relationships between parents. These programs assume that two parents are always better than one and that family instability is bad for children in all situations.

One of Ryan’s major research questions is whether or not it is marriage between parents that leads to negative outcomes, or the parents themselves. “Marriage benefits children far less among families most likely to be unwed at the time of childbirth,” said Ryan.

Ryan theorized that the “quality” of a father could predict whether or not his marriage to the mother would benefit the child. Quality was defined by marriage likelihood (the likelihood that man would be married at the time of childbirth) and fathering capacity (a combination of education level, age, cognitive ability, criminal history, and own father’s role modeling).

“I’m predicting whether or not you were married when your child was born based on these characteristics,” said Ryan about the fathering capacity factors. A low level of fathering capacity and a low level of marriage propensity means that a child would benefit very little in his or her development from the marriage of the mother and father. On the other hand, a high fathering capacity and high marriage propensity means the child would benefit far more from married parents than unmarried parents.

One interesting result of Ryan’s research was the finding that for children with unmarried parents, changes in family structure did not seem to affect the child’s behavioral outcomes. “Family change may simply be more normative [in these families],” said Ryan. “A more predictable change is far less stressful.”

Children with married parents are less likely to experience changes in family structure, so these changes may be more stressful for the child and parents involved. A change in family structure could involve the death of a parent, a divorce, or the introduction of a step mother, father, and siblings.

Using a piecewise hierarchical lineal model, Ryan was able to estimate when a change in family structure is most harmful for a child. “The strongest negative effects come from early changes in family structure,” said Ryan. This means the periods of life from birth to three and from three to five.

In conclusion, Ryan found that family structure changes for children born to unmarried parents have no significant effect on behavioral problems, as measured on the Behavioral Problem Index. “Family changes are not associated with short or long term changes in PIAT scores for [children of] married or unmarried parents,” said Ryan. The PIAT tests children aged five to 12 on their math, reading, and reading comprehension skills.

Ryan concluded her lecture by recommending some policy changes that need to be made. “Policies need to acknowledge that stable relationships are only as beneficial as the parents in them,” she said. Encouraging two unstable parents to marry may not be beneficial for a child at all. So, programs should be developed that enhance the quality of parenting, as opposed to blindly promoting marriage.

“Dr. Ryan’s lecture was very thought provoking,” said senior Katie West. “Some of her findings about divorce timing contradicted a lot of past research.”

“Dr. Ryan did a very good job of making her research accessible, and her connection of her findings to current policies concerning marriage and single-parent families was particularly interesting,” said junior Katie Grein. “The idea that forcing marriage on fathers and families who might not actually function well together as a family may not actually benefit a child made sense, as soon as she brought it up.”