John Leo
"Two Parents Not Always Best for Children, Study Finds," said the headline in last Thursday's New York Times. Can this possibly be true? Did my father foolishly put my future happiness at risk by not walking out on my mother, as the Times seems to suggest? Well, no. Not to worry about the peril of two-parent homes. The problem here is in the reporting, or as the Times might put it, "Garbled Journalism Not Always Best for Accuracy."

The Times was reporting on a Johns Hopkins University survey of 2,100 poor people in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio. It's not a major study. In fact, there's almost no news in it at all. What seems to be the main finding is crushingly familiar: Children don't do well if they are raised in homes where mothers keep replacing one live-in boyfriend with another. Researchers found that 42 percent of cohabiting couples broke up within 16 months. This "churning" of boyfriends (a word used by Andrew Cherlin, a well-known family researcher and an author of the study) is so disruptive to children that some might be better off if their mothers quit bringing in new lovers and just stayed single.

The problem is that the report used the word "parent" to cover any adult male living in the home with a mother and her child. These males ranged from a married biological father to a lover of the week briefly installed in the home by the mother. This blurring of the word "parent" skews all the numbers on what is happening in the two-parent home, making intact families look unstable when the bulk of the instability comes from cohabitators, especially "churning" ones with no particular commitment to the child. The report contains this sad litle sentence: "It is possible that some partners may not be regarded as parent-figures by the caregiver and child." No kidding.

If cohabitators and married couples behaved in roughly similar ways, nobody would care about the sloppy use of the word "parent." But they don't. An enormous body of research shows that children are far better off growing up with married parents rather than with a mother living with an unrelated male. Compared with married women, cohabiting women are more likely to have problems with drugs, alcohol, depression and sexual faithfulness, as well as violence and other conflict in the home. Their children are far more likely to be beaten or sexually abused. One 1996 study concluded that living with a stepparent or boyfriend "has turned out to be the most powerful predictor of severe child abuse yet."

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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