Everything old is new again. We say that about fashion. Hairstyles. Now we can say it about marriage.
A new book on the subject is getting a lot of attention for stating something that would have drawn a “Yeah, duh?’’ look 50 years ago. Ready for the shocker?
Two parents are better for a child than one.
This, to older people, is likely no surprise. Nor is it to social scientists like Melissa Kearney, who wrote the book. An MIT-trained economist, Kearney says the data is irrefutable.
“It’s long been documented, across dozens of studies, that kids from two-parent homes do better in a whole host of ways,” said Kearney, who penned “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind.”
“They are less likely to have behavioral problems, more likely to excel in school, and this is true even accounting for the difference in the kinds of people who are married. …
“Kids from two-parent homes do better.”
Despite this, Kearney’s book chronicles how, in recent decades, America has moved farther away from marriage and two-parent homes, particularly amongst non-college educated people. In 1960, Kearney cites, only 5% of children were born to unwed mothers. In 2019, it was almost 50%.
And our kids are paying a price.
The book has become a hot potato. Conservatives are embracing it as validation of traditional marriage. Liberals are raising eyebrows, claiming the data doesn’t consider hurdles to marriage facing certain groups in this country, like economic disparities or inequities.
One thing is undeniable. When it comes to kids in single parent or no parent homes, America leads the way. By Kearney’s estimate, nearly 30% of American children are now in that category. That blows away the average for the rest of the world, she says, which is 7%.
Even Europe, which many Americans assume is less interested in matrimony, only has 13% of its children in single-parent homes.
So if the rest of the world — most of which is less well off than America — still sees two parents as the preferred way to raise children, why don’t we?
Who’s arguing for the kids?
“There’s something that each side has been right and wrong about,” Kearney told me last week. “Conservatives have picked this up because, fundamentally, the data shows that their emphasis on a two-parent family is correct. … Kids in one-parent homes are at a major disadvantage. …
“But the other side is right that we should be doing much more to support families … and it’s not helpful or productive to just say ‘hey, more people need to get married.’ There’s real reasons people aren’t getting married.”
Kearney mentioned, for example, men who aren’t stably employed, particularly non-college-educated men. This argument has been pushed by others. A feminist author recently took it further on CNN.com:
“The problem is that decades of largely conservative policy-making have fueled inequality, gutted the working class, left a generation of men isolated and underemployed and unmoored, impoverished families and made it harder for women to both control their own fertility and find suitable partners.”
Well. That’s a whole lot of finger pointing.
But even if some or most of that is true, it doesn’t explain why countries much poorer than America have much higher marriage rates, or why, in years past, when the average standard of living here was lower, Americans still married more.
More importantly, these arguments miss the major mark. Even if marriage is more challenging, why are people still having children without it? The party we should most be looking out for is the kids, right?
And the data shows that while we’re arguing, the kids are suffering.
Are we missing the point?
Here’s another thing. Some may think we are simply being “modern” in our views on marriage, but this part seems pretty stuck in the past: It’s the mothers who end up raising the kids. Statistics show that 80% of single-parent homes are run by the mother, not the father. Why is this? If single parenting is an offshoot of modern independence, shouldn’t that hold for men as well as women?
Are we Americans, so proud of being cutting-edge thinkers, still clinging to the idea that a man can’t raise a child alone? Or are men simply forgiven more for abandoning their children, whereas women doing the same thing are seen as selfish and irresponsible.
“How could you leave your child?” they’re asked.
I perused some posted responses to a piece Kearney wrote for the New York Times about her findings. Some were defensive. They claimed Kearney “stigmatized” single mothers. One wrote that she was quite happy America had progressed to the point where women could raise children on their own:
“I think about what makes the life I enjoy possible: financial security through a union job, child support, universal prekindergarten, quality health care, a community with great babysitters as neighbors and access to homeownership.”
(Traditionalists may cynically note that child support, universal prekindergarten and neighboring babysitters only proves she needs a whole lot of help. Just not a husband’s.)
But on such an important subject, we should be honest with ourselves. Are we really leading the world in single-parent homes because of stagnant incomes or inequality? Or are we simply more selfish than our predecessors, more willing to ignore our responsibilities, more interested in doing things our way than sharing or compromising, two underpinnings of marriage.
Kearney has declared many times that she is not dissing single parents. I’m not, either. Many are incredible and their challenges immense. And no one should stay in an abusive or harmful relationship, children or not.
But there’s a reason Kearney’s data — and so many previous studies — show kids thriving in two-parent homes. Beyond all the measurable stuff like more money and more time, two-parent homes — the healthy ones anyhow — teach children how to love a partner. They demonstrate what adult love between two people looks like. They also let a child witness commitment.
The reason that, for centuries, children of marriage grew up and got married, too, is because that is what they saw. What you witness as you grow informs your decisions once you are old enough to make them.
Remember the Carly Simon song?
“But you say its time we move in together And raise a family of our own you and me, Well, what’s the way I always heard it should be, you want to marry me, we’ll marry
Seems so simple. But even that song was about worrying that the couple might not have a storybook ending. And it was released 52 years ago. I guess nothing, when it comes to marriage, is very simple anymore.