The Brooking Institute released a new report today entitled “Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage.” It’s a deep dive into the economics of marriage, family, and children. I usually think the Brooking’s Institute does a good job of independently-guided research on social issues and driving toward practical solutions based upon what is and is not working today. So I was shocked when the Brooking’s Cafeteria Broadcast used the headline “Why Marriage Is the Best Environment for Kids.” If you listen to the podcast, you’ll realize the evidence does not necessarily state marriage, but a conscious commitment to parenting and a stable environment. In fact, at the 17-minute stage of the interview, Isabel Sawhill, the report’s author, states couples should not have children unless “you and your partner want and are willing to be a parent.” It is such a central part of the thesis, that it is captured in the report’s subtitle: Drifting into parenthood.
Sadly, that doesn’t always mean marriage, nor should it. Marriage is a legal status – and always has been. It is a recognition by governments (state, federal, and/or city) of an agreement between to individuals (spouses). In most cultures, it is celebrated by a ceremony (wedding), usually a religious one (although that trend is changing). If marriage was the mechanism for parenting, then you wouldn’t need a marriage license until pregnancy. But it fails as a the litmus test for love, commitment, an the ability and want to be a parent. It may carry with it the expectation of those things, but it doesn’t guarantee them. I’m not sure it ever did (just spend some time reading how royalty and the churches used marriages as agreements between countries and to establish monarchies and political affiliations. And no, I’m not just speaking of the Tudors, but in all cultures and continents). I am not trying to tear down marriage. But I am a realist: Giving something a label doesn’t necessarily mean it carries any particular attributes.
I think what really shocked me (and somewhat angered me, I’ll admit), was the way the Brookings Institute promoted the article: The title tacitly infers that with marriage comes the attributes that lead to great parenting. Some might say I’m just arguing semantics; and to that I will say, sure. That is exactly what I am arguing, and trying to clarify. The difference between parenting and marriage. And this concept is confused by the litany of studies showing the disadvantages and challenges children face when coming from single-parent families compared to marriages. Not necessarily two-parent families, which is the best comparison group. I’m not saying those challenges aren’t real, but I’m am saying that those challenges can and often do exist in married families. Listening to the podcast, you realize that Sawhill’s believes that too. At one point she states that gay couples – who until recently couldn’t achieve the legal status of marriage in any state – have the capacity to provide family stability and strong parenting. But she also states, obviously, that there is no data on gay marriages yet to compare to other marriages.
And this made me realize there is another piece of data that is missing from the conversation about marriage, family, and children. The cost of being raised in a marriage that fails to provide stability and family focus, but stayed intact because of the belief that it is better for the child to have two married parents. I’ve watched friends and loved ones struggle to keep a marriage together, when happiness was not going to be achieved. We all know people who will attest that in hindsight their parents should probably have been divorced. The stories tell of unpredictability and instability in their home life; of parents not focusing necessarily on what’s best for the child, but on the broken spousal relationship. At worst, these children becomes pawns in marriage. I’ve never seen a study comparing children in troubled marriages to children with single-parents. What challenges await children raised in a family with parents that constantly argue and fight, that don’t have trust for one another, but are committed to the marriage and do love their children?
At the end of this rant, I liked the interview, and the evidence that Brookings provides. But the researcher and educator in me is disappointed that they failed to communicate what they really learned: Stable Environments and Strong Parenting are Best for Kids.