New Irish study shows family structure matters after all

It seems family structure matters after all. An important new paper from the ESRI devotes a chapter to this question, and after controlling for factors like poverty, it nonetheless finds that being raised in a two parent household as distinct from a one parent household can confer certain advantages on children.

The paper is called ‘Cherishing All the Children Equally’ and chapter 4 of the paper is entitled ‘Is Family Structure a Source of Inequality in Children’s Lives’? The chapter uses data based on the ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ longitudinal study and looks at children aged 9 and 13 to find out whether the answer to the chapter’s question is ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It finds out that the answer is yes, family structure is a source of inequality in children’s lives.

The authors do their very best to try and explain the different outcomes for children raised in different family structures in other ways. They ask whether socio-economic background makes a difference, and it does.

They ask whether the mental health of the mother makes a difference, and it does. But even after controlling for these two things, the authors still end up drawing the conclusion “that family structure does indeed represent a source of inequality in children’s lives, and places children in single parent households at risk of poorer developmental outcomes” compared with children raised in two parent households.

This conclusion is extremely important because for years Irish academics, among others, have been extremely slow to say family structure affects children. This is probably because of the way in which single parent families were stigmatised in the past.

The authors (Elizabeth Nixon and Lorraine Swords), conclude that their analysis points to the important role “socio-economic disadvantage and family processes play in this link between family structure and children’s outcomes, and highlights important targets for intervention and prevention efforts”.

They say efforts should be made to “improve parental wellbeing and support good quality family relationships”.

Mysteriously, they do not call for greater efforts to promote the two-parent family which seems to be a pretty obvious thing to call for given their findings. Promoting the two-parent family may or may not work, but surely it should at least be an aim.

In any event, it is good to see an Irish study finally confirm what numerous studies overseas have pointed to, namely that family structure does matter, and that being raised by two parents (this will almost invariably mean the child’s mother and father) can confer advantages on children.