When it comes to good parenting, having money matters more than being married, a new study concludes.
Whether single, married or divorced, American parents strive to meet common recommendations for good parenting behavior, from eating meals with their kids to setting rules about television time to encouraging extracurricular activities, researchers found. In fact, newly released U.S. Census Bureau statistics reveal that only small variations in parenting depend on family structure, according to the study.
Much more important is whether a family lives in poverty, said Sandra Hofferth, a professor of family science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
"The major issues were that some families are really resource-poor," Hofferth told Live Science. "The resources led to bigger differences in parenting than family structure." [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]
Good parenting practices
Hofferth was not involved in the collection of the original census data, which was released in a report on Dec. 9, 2014. However, she released her own analysis of the numbers today (Jan. 28) in a report for the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit academic organization devoted to research about American family life.
The census report found that 63 percent of American kids live with two married parents, while 27.5 percent live with a single parent, 5 percent with two unmarried but cohabiting parents and 4.5 percent with a nonparent guardian or guardians.
Family structure had only a limited effect on how parents raise their children, the researchers said. For example, 93 percent of married parents of 6- to 11-year-olds had at least one rule limiting television viewing, as did 90 percent of single parents of kids the same age. Among married parents, 54 percent read to their 3- to 5-year-olds daily; among cohabiting parents, the rate was 50 percent.
In comparison, 41 percent of single parents reported reading to their preschool-age child every day. But a closer look at the data revealed that those single parents are no slackers, either, Hofferth said. They read to their 3- to 5-year-olds an average of six days a week, compared with an average of 6.8 days a week for married parents.
For family meals, the kids of single parents were actually slightly more likely to eat dinner with a parent than the kids of married parents — 35 percent versus 32 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds, according to the census data. This may be due to the fact that kids of married parents are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities, many of which interfere with the dinner hour, Hofferth said.
Money and marriage
Overall, the census numbers point to the idea that in the U.S., money matters more than a marriage certificate, the researchers said. For example, 42.5 percent of children in families whose incomes were at 200 percent of the poverty line or higher participated in sports, compared with only 22.5 percent of kids in families living in poverty. Kids' participation in clubs and lessons showed a similar pattern: About 35 percent of kids with family incomes at 200 percent or more of the poverty line participated, compared with about 20 percent for those living in poverty.
Children living in poor families were also more likely to experience disruptions in their family lives than children in families above the poverty line. About 22 percent of kids in poverty experienced a change in their family structure, compared with 17 percent of kids living at or above the poverty line.
"Poverty can affect families economically, socially and emotionally and can lead to family instability," the census report concluded.
Income does appear to influence family structure, Hofferth said. Only about 14 percent of two-parent married households are in poverty, compared with 37 percent of cohabiting unmarried-parent households.
"These families tend to be low-income, they tend to be low-education, and young," Hofferth said. Research on low-income parents has found that they tend to seek economic stability before committing to marriage, a challenge now that there are few job opportunities for workers with only a high school diploma.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.