FAMILY CHANGE AND DEVELOPMENTS IN RESEARCH ON OUTCOMES
The way in which the concern for children and their outcomes is often expressed in public debate is in terms specifically of their being the children of lone parents. Similarly, their experience of this family life in a lone-parent family is implicitly characterized by two facts: first, that all lone-parent families and all experiences of family change and disruption are the same; second, that this is a static model along the lines of ‘once a lone-parent family always a lone – parent family’. But research has had to take into account that neither of these are the case. Lone-parent families comprise not only those that come about because of separation or divorce, but also (although less frequently) those resulting from bereavement or (and more commonly now than was once the case) those who are single and have never been married. The picture is further complicated by cohabitation and re-partnership. Among the latter, moreover, there is a considerable diversity of family structure and family life (Robinson and Smith 1993).
In 1992, almost 170,000 children under 16 years old in Britain experienced the divorce of their parents (OPCS 1994) and almost one in four children are likely to do so before they reach 16 (Haskey 1990). Provisional estimates suggest that there were nearly 750,000 separated or divorced lone mothers in 1992 with on average almost two dependent children (Haskey 1994). There are as well those children who have experienced the breakdown of their parents’ cohabiting partnership. There are no official statistics on how many children are affected in this way and the lone-mother families created as a result are recorded as single (never-married) lone mothers (Brown 1995). There are still those (even if their numbers are smaller now than they once were) who experience the death of a parent. The most recent count, for 1992, provisionally estimated that there were 60,000 widows heading lone-parent families with on average less than two children per family (Haskey 1994). Also growing numbers of children are living with their never-married lone mother and no resident partner. They may have done so from birth or since the breakdown in her cohabiting relationship. The number of single lone-mother families was estimated provisionally to be 490,000 at the last count, in 1992. They have the smallest average family size at 1.4 dependent children (Haskey 1994).
The number of lone-father families has also grown in recent years, even though they account for a declining proportion of the total number of lone parents. A provisional estimate, again for 1992, puts their number at 120,000.
Lone parenthood, however, is no more a static state than are other family forms. Just as lone-parent families are formed, so they may dissolve through re-partnerships whether of cohabitation or marriage (as well as through the death of a parent or when a young person grows up). Periods of lone parenthood are commonly around four years (Mckay and Marsh 1994).
The combined result of these family changes is that more children, though still a minority, experience more family change and experience life in a diversity of families and family structures. Second or stepfamilies may comprise, for example, combinations of ‘his’, ‘her’ and ‘their’ children. How children respond to these changes will not be uniform and the nature of the experience and their response to it cannot be assumed. Their relationships with their own parents, for example, may get better or worse; they may see more of them or less—not that frequency and quality of contact should necessarily be assumed synonymous. Indeed, the qualitative elements of the child – parent relationships are likely to be critical influences on their wellbeing and development. In addition, children may gain and lose siblings—stepbrothers and stepsisters and/or half brothers and half sisters. While some grandparents, aunts and uncles may become more distant, others may become closer and new ones appear.
Change and diversity may seem to be the hallmarks of family life for increasing numbers of children today as more of them experience the breakdown of their parents’ relationship, family life with one resident and one non-resident parent and/or the formation of a second family. It may be important, therefore, to remember the context of family life within which most children are brought up in Great Britain. Indeed, given the emphasis on the rapidity and diversity of family change, it may come as some surprise that seven out of ten dependent children live with both their natural parents (International Year of the Family 1994). This compares with two in ten children living with a lone parent and one in ten in a step-family. Despite their common family structure, however, children’s experience of life in an ‘intact’ family and of growing up should not be assumed to be uniform. Once again, within any family structure, family life will be played out with great diversity and variety.
As already indicated, research initially tended to concentrate on children whose parents had separated or divorced. This was not surprising given anxiety about the increasing prevalence of divorce from the 1960s. The focus of concern, moreover, was the divorce itself, the consequences of which were thought of as a relatively short-term crisis. As divorce became more widespread, the debate about its consequences broadened. Family life both before and after the divorce were also considered, even if the divorce itself remained in many respects the focal point. Divorce thus began to be seen as part of a process of family change. It might be preceded by marital disharmony, conflict and even violence and result in lone parenthood and perhaps the establishment of a second family. Research thus began to address the possibility of influences on children’s well-being and outcomes over a longer period, and of longer-term consequences for children both in second families and in their subsequent transitions into (more independent) adulthood.
The consequences of these experiences of family change for children, and their development as young people and into adulthood, are usually compared and contrasted with those of children in both intact and bereaved families. What research has not done (and perhaps given their limited number in longitudinal cohorts, could not have done) is an equivalent assessment for the (now growing number of) children of single (never-married) lone mothers. Some of these children will always have lived on their own with their mothers. The experience of others, whose parents had a cohabiting relationship but are now separated, is assumed to have been more akin to children whose married parents have separated or divorced. It is interesting to reflect, perhaps, that those children born to a single mother who subsequently but not initially cohabits with the child’s father will experience family change to become part of a ‘traditional’ two-parent family.
Commonly measured outcomes include academic achievement— as measured by reading and arithmetic tests (at 7, 11 and 16 years in the National Child Development Study)—and educational qualifications and psychological adjustment and behaviour.