Social, Economic and Cultural Factors Must Be Taken Into Account

Newswise — For more than four decades, it has largely been assumed that a family structure in which fathers are absent and the household is headed by a single parent, typically the mother, deprives children of the skills they need to be socially and academically successful.

But that isn’t necessarily so.

In a study published this month in Family Relations, researchers at the Rush University College of Nursing found that conjugal multiplicity, in which women have multiple partners, was a strategic adaptation to the conditions of poverty that in fact provides developmental advantages for poor children in rural Jamaica. In a country where no public welfare system exists, having multiple partners enables Jamaican mothers to receive and combine resources from each of the children’s fathers, who are culturally obligated to provide material support, however meager their earnings.

The study calls into question simplistic correlations linking poverty and poor child development with single, unmarried parents without reference to the social, economic, and cultural context in which reproductive and conjugal behavior occur.

“Neither the ethnographic data nor the standardized test results in our study supports the commonly held belief that a nuclear family structure, sanctified by marriage, ensures or even promotes positive child development in rural, working-class Jamaican families,” said Melanie Dreher, PhD, dean of the Rush University College of Nursing and lead author of the study. “In fact, given the unyielding economic environment in which these families live, the very patterns widely assumed to be detrimental appear to provide some developmental advantages for the children.”

The study examined the relationship between women’s conjugal behavior and the intellectual achievement and physical development of their pre-school-aged children. The researchers followed the development of 59 children in Jamaica over five years, using field-based observations of the children at home and school and in the community, as well as standardized measures of the home environment and child development. The standardized measures included data on the children’s school attendance and physical and cognitive development.

The mean general cognitive index score was lower for children of one-father families than for children of multiple-father families: 95.67 versus 102.42. The mean weight/height ratio was also lower for children in one-father families (.83) than for children in multiple-father families (.95).

More unfavorable scores were associated as well with families where the father was present (because of a legal or common-law union) versus families where the father was absent.

These results held for households with five or fewer children. In households where there were six or more maternal siblings, however, child development was compromised regardless of conjugal status, the father’s presence or absence, or the number of partners.

According to Dreher, the study calls into question the popular paradigm suggesting that children who are raised in the households of unmarried mothers with children by several unions are necessarily at risk.

“Legal marriage is a highly useful institution in populations that are propertied and economically solvent and in which women can draw on resources other than their fertility. For women living in societies in which men are economically marginal, however, it may be a liability,” Dreher said.

Dreher acknowledged that the results of the study are not wholly transferable to other cultures. But she said the results do provide insights about “family values” and the role of marriage.

“While it is true that there is a strong correlation between single-parent households and childhood poverty, it is equally true that marriage, nuclear family structure, and even a father’s presence, in and of themselves, do not constitute a panacea for child development in an unyielding economic environment,” Dreher said. “They further suggest that marriage is not the only, or even an essential, venue for optimal childbearing or childrearing—particularly if it inhibits women’s access to resources.”

The study was supported in part by funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and in part by a grant from the March of Dimes Foundation.

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Family Relations