Parents’ marital status does not significantly improve children’s outcomes

25 July 2011

A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggests parents’ marital status has ‘little or no additional impact on the child’s development’.

Based on an analysis of data from the Millennium Cohort Study, the report indicates that while there are differences between the cognitive development of children whose parents are married and those whose parents are cohabitating, the statistical significance of the gap disappears when controlling for parents’ education, occupation, income and housing tenure. The gap in social and emotional development reduces by more than half when controlling for parental education and socio-economic status, and becomes statistically insignificant when further controlling for unplanned pregnancy and parents’ relationship quality when their child was nine months.

The researchers conclude that parents who marry in the first place already differ from those who cohabitate in ethnicity, education, socio-economic status, and quality and length of their relationship. Once controlling for these factors, it seems that the legal status of their relationship is not a significant causal factor in their children’s outcomes.

While this report makes a significant contribution to the political debate over the benefits of encouraging parents to formally marry, IFS researchers acknowledge that the findings do not offer a definitive estimate of the impact of marriage on children’s outcomes. They intend to follow up their work with an analysis of the 1970 British Cohort Study, which will look at pre-existing parental characteristics such as parental cognitive and social skills and relationship histories over their whole adult lives.

For more information

IFS press release: ‘Encouraging parents to marry unlikely to lead to significant improvements in young children’s outcomes’

Full report: ‘Cohabitation, marriage and child outcomes’ by Alissa Goodman and Ellen Greaves

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