April 8, 2011

New Facts About Families

Recent Findings on Family Meals, Cohabitation and Divorce

by D’Vera Cohn, Senior Writer, Pew Research Center

More than 2,000 demographers, sociologists and others converged on Washington, D.C., recently for the Population Association of America’s annual meeting. Among the poster sessions and papers presented were some that dispute the popular (or academic) wisdom about important aspects of family life. Three are described here, along with Pew Research Center survey findings that bear on the topics they cover – family meals, cohabitation and divorce.

Conference presentations are typically works-in-progress, to be revised as more information becomes available or challenges to their methodology are resolved. They are not the final word on these topics, and should not be taken as the new conventional wisdom. But they raise valuable questions about substantive issues.

Family Meals

Take family meals, for example. Everybody knows that children turn out better if they grow up in a home where the family gathers around the dinner table each night, right? Not so fast, according to a poster presented by researchers from Boston University and Columbia University. They used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to ask whether academic performance and behavior of children from kindergarten through eighth grade could be linked to how often they ate breakfast or dinner with their families. (They accounted for — in research parlance, “controlled for” — factors such as family income and school quality that also could affect their results.)

The research suggests “that there is little or no average effect of [family meal frequency] on child cognitive and behavioral outcomes during the period from kindergarten to eighth grade.” Previous studies may not be wrong, but their results “should be interpreted with caution,” according to Daniel P. Miller and Wen-Jui Han. The two acknowledge that their research did not look at older teenagers; earlier research has suggested that adolescents who often have family meals are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol or to have behavior problems.

A recent Pew Research Center report on family issues includes some data on frequency of family meals, taken from a survey of adults last October. Among parents of children under age 18, half say they have dinner every day with some or all of their children, 34% say they have family meals a few times a week, 11% say they do so occasionally and 3% say they never do.

Cohabitation

On the topic of cohabitation, everybody knows that couples who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce than couples who do not, because that is what much research has found. But some recent work disputes that conclusion. Now that most couples move in together before they marry, cohabitation may not be as linked to divorce as it was when live-in couples were less common.

The Pew Research Center report on families, released last year, found that 44% of adults (and more than half of 30- to 49-year-olds) say they have cohabited at some point. Nearly two-thirds of adults who ever cohabited (64%) say they thought about it as a step toward marriage. The report also notes a trend toward rising public acceptance of cohabiting couples over the years. Most Americans now say the rise in unmarried couples living together either makes no difference to society (46%) or is good for society (9%).

A paper by Bowling Green State University researchers, using data from the National Survey of Family Growth, concluded that among women who married since the mid-1990s, cohabitation is not tied to heightened risk of divorce. Looking at women who married in the past 15 years, “our work shows that cohabitation no longer influences marital instability,” wrote researchers Wendy D. Manning and Jessica A. Cohen in the paper they presented at the population meeting.

Divorce

An abundance of research about divorce links it to increased risk of problems for children both in the immediate aftermath of the split and later on in life. In fact, the phrase “intergenerational transmission of divorce” is used to describe the elevated risk of divorce among children whose parents divorced. But in certain cases, a parent’s divorce does not raise the risk that their children’s marriages or cohabitations will break up, according to a paper by researchers at Montclair State University.

Using data from the National Survey of Families and Households, Constance T. Gager and Miriam R. Linver compared the relationship paths of adult children who grew up in different types of households. They focused especially on children whose parents often argued. In general, having “high conflict parents” is associated with a child’s higher risk of divorce in adulthood, but the researchers concluded that it also matters whether the parents stay together or split up. They wrote: “Our key findings are that children who had high conflict parents are less likely to have experienced a cohabiting or marital dissolution if their parents divorced compared to children from high conflict families whose parents remained together.”

A 2007 Pew Research Center report found that most Americans (58%) think that divorce is preferable to staying in an unhappy marriage. A larger majority (67%) says that in a marriage where the parents are very unhappy with each other, the children are better off if their parents get divorced; 19% say the children are better off if their parents stay together; and 9% say it depends.