Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

Marriage and Child Development

Maybe marriage is not important for children?

In the US we are confronted over and over again with the claim that marriage is necessary for the health and well-being of children. Just last week, the New York Times magazine ran an article suggesting that while monogamy is not important for marriage, keeping marriage together for the kids IS the most important goal we can have. Quoting gay sexpert Dan Savage, the article argues:

Given the rates of infidelity, people who get married should have to swear a blood oath that if it's violated, as traumatic as that would be, the greater good is the relationship... The greater good is the home created for children. If there are children present, they'll get past it. The cultural expectation should be if there's infidelity, the marriage is more important than fidelity."

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This popular opinion that children need marriage is backed up by a large number of "experts" ranging from the conservative Family Research Council to Barack Obama, who continues to support the claim that lack of marriage is what creates poverty and to support the use of $300,000,000 for the "Healthy Marriage Initiative"

In the UK, where conservative politicians have been trying to whip up public support by linking poverty to not being married in ways that mirror American political discourse, a recent study says there is no relationship between marriage and the well-being of children.

New research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has found "little or no evidence" that marriage itself has any effect on children's "social or cognitive" development.

According to one of the study's lead authors, economist Ellen Greaves,

It is true that children born to married couples are on average more cognitively and emotionally successful than children born to cohabiting couples. But careful analysis shows that this largely reflects the differences between the types of people who decide to get married and those who don't."

Why isn't this research being replicated in the US? Why do American psychologists, sociologists and politicians continue to insist that marriage will make you wealthier and your children healthier when it should be obvious that class is reproduced not through marriage, but through the amounts of capital- economic, cultural and social- that parents are able to pass on to their children? As for emotional health, this too has to do with who the parents are as human beings, not whether or not they're married. All sorts of nasty human beings are married. There is no evidence linking "niceness" to marriage that I have seen.

The answer as to why we don't see similar studies in the US is that the belief that marriage is necessary for children has reached the point where it is "hegemonic." A belief is hegemonic when it is seen as so obvious, so common sensical, that "everyone agrees."  Once a belief is hegemonic, we are not allowed to even think otherwise unless we want to be labeled crazy or stupid. From gay sex columnists like Savage to Democratic presidents like Obama, we "all" agree that marriage is necessary for the well being of children. And so we produce research that tells us what we already believe to be true. When research appears that undermines this hegemony, we ignore it because we cannot even entertain the possibility that marriage isn't necessary for children.

Unless of course a study like this manages to enter the popular consciousness and the political discourse. But I would guess that in the US, unlike the UK, that will never happen.

 

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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