After Unmarried Parents Part

Effective co-parenting among unmarried parents is a “key predictor of children’s behavior problems,” according to Julia S. Goldberg and Marcia J. Carlson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In their 2013 study “Co-Parenting and Child Wellbeing after Unmarried Parents Part,” Goldberg and Carlson found that co-parenting declines slightly as more time passes after the end of parents’ romantic involvement. The mothers’ and fathers’ relationships and childbearing with other people are highly predictive of co-parenting quality.

These findings highlight the importance of co-parenting for children’s well-being and suggest that public policy should encourage unmarried men and women to work together as parents amidst high levels of family instability and complexity. Divorced parents who rear their children in joint physical and legal custody routines are said to be co-parenting.

Goldberg is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and the Center for Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Marcia Carlson is Professor of Sociology and an Affiliate at the Center for Demography and Ecology and the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Nonmarital childbearing has increased dramatically during the past several decades, with the fraction of births occurring outside of marriage rising six-fold in the latter half of the 20th century,” say Goldberg and Carlson. “Today, fully 41 percent of all births in the U.S. are to unmarried parents, with even higher proportions among racial and ethnic minorities. Although many unmarried parents are cohabiting when their child is born, about two-thirds of all unmarried parents will be living apart by the time their child turns five. Since children typically live with mothers after parental separation, the modal child born outside of marriage will be living apart from their father at a very young age and over a large number of years. Therefore, the extent to which unmarried parents living apart are able to cooperate effectively in rearing their common child— referred to as ‘co-parenting’—may have an important influence on children’s well-being and development, as has been shown to be the case after divorce.”

The extent unmarried parents living apart cooperate effectively in rearing common child may have important implications for children’s well-being and development. Both research and life experience suggests the importance of co-parenting. According to social learning theory children model the behaviors of significant others, particularly their parents. Parents who display cooperation or conflict may produce similar behavior in children. Given the importance of parental socialization for children, the parents’ ability to work together may enhance social capital within the family and strengthen the family.

Moreover, research shows that a supportive relationship with their child’s mother is an important factor in fathers’ continued involvement with their children. Mothers play an important role in reinforcing men’s identity as a father and encouraging male involvement in the children’s lives. Absent this supportive influence, men may be more likely to disengage from their children. In addition, the literature on ‘maternal gatekeeping’ suggests that mothers who experience conflict or distrust in their relationship with the father—or have concerns about the fathers’ characteristics—may take active steps to prevent these men from interacting with their children. These processes are important, given the large body of evidence suggesting that a high-quality relationship with their father matters for children’s behavior and overall wellbeing. Furthermore, these processes are likely to be amplified when parents no longer share a household residence and fathers face numerous additional barriers to maintaining a relationship with their child.

Differences between unmarried and divorced parents may result from the experience of marriage. “Post-dissolution circumstances after divorce from a legal marriage may be quite different from dissolving a cohabiting or dating relationship. Marriage provides an important social contract that reinforces parental rights; as a result, parenting responsibilities may be clearer for divorced fathers than for fathers who never married the child’s mother. Since positive co-parenting may reflect a stronger indicator of cooperation and communication among couples whose relationship was not “institutionalized” by marriage, we might expect co-parenting to matter more for children’s well-being among parents who never married.”

The study used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to describe patterns of co-parenting over six years following the end of a nonmarital relationship, to identify individual and interpersonal characteristics associated with better co-parenting, and to examine whether co-parenting is associated with lower behavioral problems among children aged three through nine.

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