Young children of unmarried parents fare worse when a father's support is court-ordered

May 14, 2012

Young children of unmarried parents who live with their mother and receive court-mandated financial support from their father exhibit more aggressive behavior than those who don't get any formal support at all, according to a Rutgers University Study.

In analyzing data from a study of nearly 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000, Lenna Nepomnyaschy, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, also found that 5-year-old children have increased when their father provides cash support without being forced to do so by a legal agreement. The data comes from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study in 20 large U.S. cities.

"We want to be careful and not say that formal support is bad," says Nepomnyaschy who worked on the study published in Social Service Review with researchers from the University of Wisconsin. "For most mothers it is hugely important. But it might not be working for all types of families."

Nepomnyaschy says prior research focused only on how financial support affected the children of divorced parents. Today, however, nearly 40 percent of children are born to unmarried parents, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. And never married mothers represent the largest proportion of in the United States.

What this new research indicates is that at least for young children of unmarried parents an informal agreement between the mother and father – with paternal involvement in the child's life – might lead to a better overall emotional environment.

"One possible reason why children whose fathers provide informal support might be exhibiting better vocabulary, verbal skills and scholastic aptitude is that these fathers not only give money to the mother when they can, but they also come around and are more involved in the child's life," Nepomnyaschy says. "So from a policy perspective we have to ask ourselves is it the money or the father's involvement that makes the difference in the child's life? Or is it a combination of both?"

According to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, only 20 percent of unmarried fathers not living with their children paid formal child support by the time the child was 3-years-old, while 40 percent provided informal support. Many of these low-income fathers are out of work and struggling to make ends meet, Nepomnyaschy says. Although they may not provide financial assistance on a regular basis, they often are involved in their children's lives, support them in other ways, and give money to the mother when they can.

Researchers found that providing higher levels of informal support – more than $700 in two years – as opposed to giving nothing was associated with an increase in the cognitive skill levels of these .

When these fathers were mandated to provide support through the courts, however, children who received low levels of formal support, below $1,800 over two years, exhibited more aggressive behaviors than children the same age who were not getting any formal support from their fathers.

"This is definitely a puzzling result that needs to be examined further," says Nepomnyaschy. "Maybe these fathers are violent, have problems with drugs, spank the children or have bad relationships with the mother. We don't have a definitive answer."

Researchers believe that low-income fathers and mothers may prefer informal support because, in many states, if the mother is receiving federal assistance like food stamps or welfare, the support check paid by the father – which is usually minimal -- is kept by the state. Informal support, Nepomnyaschy says, often gives the father better leverage over visitation, child rearing and the ability to monitor how the money is spent.

"It is likely that unmarried mothers only go after formal support when their romantic relationship ends or when the father's informal support stops," says Nepomnyaschy.

She believes that more research is needed to determine whether these findings hold up as children get older. "We may find that the importance of formal child support to a child's well-being increases in the long term," says Nepomnyaschy. "But it is important to look at how we incentivize these to get involved in ways other than just providing formal support when these are still young."

Explore further: Precarious work schedules common among younger workers

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

When Mom Dates, Dad Stops Visiting His Kids

Aug 03, 2009

New research from the Journal of Marriage and Family shows that children born outside of marriage are less likely to be visited by their father when the mother is involved in a new romantic relationship. Many children born out ...

Empty nest syndrome may not be bad after all, study finds

Feb 21, 2008

One day they are crawling, the next day they are driving and then suddenly they aren’t kids anymore. As children reach adulthood, the parent-child relationship changes as parents learn to adapt to newly independent children. ...

Recommended for you

Precarious work schedules common among younger workers

15 hours ago

One wish many workers may have this Labor Day is for more control and predictability of their work schedules. A new report finds that unpredictability is widespread in many workers' schedules—one reason ...

Girls got game

16 hours ago

Debi Taylor has worked in everything from construction development to IT, and is well and truly socialised into male-dominated workplaces. So when she found herself the only female in her game development ...

Computer games give a boost to English

Aug 28, 2014

If you want to make a mark in the world of computer games you had better have a good English vocabulary. It has now also been scientifically proven that someone who is good at computer games has a larger ...

Saddam Hussein—a sincere dictator?

Aug 28, 2014

Are political speeches manipulative and strategic? They could be – when politicians say one thing in public, and privately believe something else, political scientists say. Saddam Hussein's legacy of recording private discussions ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

that_guy
5 / 5 (1) May 14, 2012
I did read the stupid article, and wonder what marriage has to do with this?

The factor here is that children fair worse if the dad is a deadbeat who doesn't want to be involved. Every other factor has no final relation to the result, aside from providing general trends of mostly stupid, but sometimes unlucky people.

And the stupid women who invariably get pregnant outside of a committed relationship, married or otherwise. I'm not a huge proponent of marriage, but if you plan to have a child, you might as well get married first.

If you do not plan to have a child, use birth control. Simple.
CHollman82
3 / 5 (2) May 14, 2012
I'm not married, I have a 1.5 year old son and another on the way this summer. I have been with my girlfriend for 10 years though...
that_guy
5 / 5 (2) May 14, 2012
I'm not married, I have a 1.5 year old son and another on the way this summer. I have been with my girlfriend for 10 years though...

technically you're married in the eyes of most states. I think the research/article fails to distinguish between a stable, committed relationship like yours (or mine for that matter), and the relationshits of the stupid.