Nov 24, 2012
Experts see attitudes shift toward marriage, children
Offers relationship counseling and parenting skill classes.
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In the past decade, the composition of families with children has been changing in Springfield and the entire country.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau for the city of Springfield shows married couples with children under 18 have steadily decreased in number since 2000, while families headed by a single parent have increased.
In 2000, 4,336 families with children at home were headed by single women in Springfield. That number grew to 4,662 in 2010. The greater percentage gains were by unmarried men with children in the home — up to 1,674 in 2010 from 1,328 in 2000 — an increase of 26 percent.
Married parents with children, however, have been on the decline. In 2000, there were 9,860 households made up of a married couple and children under 18. In 2010, that number dropped to 8,142 — a drop of 17 percent.
Although conventional wisdom often attributes an increase in single parenting to teenage mothers or an increased number of divorces, local experts say the trend is more of a reflection of changing ideas on marriage and the importance of having children.
Jennifer Baker, vice president for innovation and community health at the Forest Institute in Springfield, said the number of local teenage mothers has been on the decline.
While divorce may account for a small fraction of the increase in single-parent families, Baker said a growing number of children are born to unmarried mothers in their 20s. National statistics reflect a similar trend.
One of the most notable books on the topic is "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage” by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas.
The authors surveyed hundreds of couples who had or were about to have a child, then followed those couples over a period of years. Despite the assumption that unmarried couples having children did not value marriage, the authors found quite the opposite.
"They valued marriage. They saw it as something important. But they had never seen anyone succeed,” Baker said of the findings in the book.
Children, on the other hand, weren’t seen as the same level of commitment.
"While the poor women we interviewed saw marriage as a luxury, something they aspired to but feared they might never achieve, they judged children to be a necessity, an absolutely essential part of a young woman’s life, the chief source of identity and meaning,” Edin and Kefalas wrote.
Baker has seen plenty of evidence of similar sentiment in the Ozarks.
She told the story of a woman she had met who was having her sixth child. She asked the woman what she thought about marriage.
"She laughed and said, ‘Well, that’s a very serious commitment. I don’t know that I’m ready for that,’ ” Baker remembered.
Although more and more children are being born to unmarried women, statistics show a majority of those women are in a relationship with the father — and a good portion of those couples live together at the time of the birth.
"Statistically, almost all of the increase in non-marital childbearing in the last few decades is explained by an increase in the children born to cohabiting parents,” wrote Charles Murray in his controversial book "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.”
In the book, Murray analyzes what he sees as the decline of white society. He attributes at least a portion of that "coming apart” to the breakdown of the traditional marriage.
He writes that his pessimism on the topic "stems from my belief that families with children are the core around which American communities must be organized — must, because families with children have always been, and still are, the engine that makes American communities work.”
With an increasing number of unmarried and single parents, a flurry of books and studies on the outcomes of those children have emerged.
None have a very hopeful outlook.
Link to poverty
According to the local Community Focus Report from 2011, one of every two single mothers in the Ozarks lives in poverty.
"The rising levels of families in poverty bring tremendous societal challenges including increased crime, family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, financial instability and reduced educational attainment,” the report said.
The National Incidence Study of Abuse and Neglect, which examines all reported incidences of child mistreatment, found that abuse and neglect rates differed according to family structure.
Children living with their married biological parents had the lowest rate of abuse and neglect. Families with a single biological parent had the highest rate.
Pat Reiser, the executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Southwest Missouri, said her volunteers see similar outcomes.
"There are so many issues wrapped up in child abuse,” Reiser said, emphasizing that single parenting alone is hardly a predictor for abuse.
But the stressors that often go along with single parenting — a lack of support, financial difficulties, a lack of sleep, etc. — can at times be a catalyst for abuse or neglect.
Adults who aren’t blood relatives in the home — like the parents’ significant other — can often be perpetrators as well, Reiser said.
"They can go off a lot quicker,” she said, explaining that often the other adult doesn’t have parenting experience or strong relationship to the child.
Health issues are similarly more prevalent in children from single-parent households, national statistics show.
Dr. Rob Steele, a pediatrician with Mercy in Springfield, said he doesn’t notice worse outcomes for children of single parents directly, but more often from some of the factors that go along with single parenting — poverty, a lack of support or time constraints.
He said single parents often have to spend more time planning ahead for when things like doctor appointments come up, or what to do when the child is sick but the parent needs to be at work.
"It requires a higher level of preparation, and that’s just because you don’t have the help,” he said.
What to do?
"We need to help the couple,” is Baker’s simple answer.
She advocates for programs like the one at the Forest Institute — Hitched (Or Not) and Hatching, a project of Operation Us — that promote a stronger relationship for the parents of the child, although she emphasizes that not all relationships should result in marriage or continue it.
"I never, ever want to give the impression that marriage will solve all your problems, or that marriages are always salvageable,” she said.
But for those couples who are interested in staying together and building a strong, healthy foundation for their child’s development, programs like Operation Us provide an opportunity for parents to learn to better communicate, anticipate the struggles of raising a child and learning to work as a better team.
The local Hitched (Or Not) and Hatching program is based on a similar model used in Oklahoma City. There it’s called Family Expectations and expands the program, offering a one-stop shop for a variety of parenting and couples’ needs — from a rewards program that allows parents to collect "points” that can be redeemed for items for the baby, classes geared specifically for fathers and relationship counseling.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services studied eight programs — including Family Expectations — to evaluate how counseling and education programs strengthen relationships and effect child outcomes.
"Fifteen months after program application, (Family Expectations) couples reported higher levels of relationship happiness, greater support and affection for each other, better conflict management and less infidelity,” the report found.
Although it’s too early to study the effects of these programs on children’s lives, Baker thinks future research will show improved outcomes for kids as well.
"If we really want to affect change for these children, we have to look at their parents,” she said.