Study: Kids just as happy in non-traditional families

A new British study shows that children are just as happy if they live with a step-parent, a lone parent or two biological parents.

The study found that what mattered to children was how the children were treated by their parents, rather than the number, or type, of parents they had.

The researchers here use “happiness” as an indicator of the children’s sense of well-being.

Investigators reported that they analyzed two sets of data on children from England. One drawn from a study of over 12,000 aged seven, and another set of data taken from a group of children aged 11 to 15.

Of course, this information flies in the faces of those who claim, based on not much actual science, that it’s best for children to be raised by two opposite-sex parents (“traditional families.”)

In a study presented at the annual meeting of the British Sociological Association, researchers presented their work on the data take from these two groups.

(Good guy) protesters outside the Supreme Court, and across from the US Congress, for the oral arguments on the gay rights cases involving DOMA and Proposition 8 in March, 2013. © John Aravosis 2013

(Good guy) protesters outside the Supreme Court, and across from the US Congress, for the oral arguments on the gay rights cases involving DOMA and Proposition 8 in March, 2013. © John Aravosis 2013

Their findings are below (emphasis added.)

Whether the children lived with two biological parents, with a step-parent and biologic parent, or in a single parent family, made no difference: 64% said they were happy ‘sometimes or never’, and 36% said they were ‘happy all the time’.

Even when the researchers statistically removed the effects of other factors such as parental social class so that the effects of family type were isolated, the results showed no significant differences.

Jenny Chanfreau, Senior Researcher at NatCen, told the conference that, in contrast, relationships with parents and other children were strongly linked with how likely the seven-year-olds were to be happy. For instance, factors such as getting on well with siblings and not being bullied at school were associated with being happy all the time.

Ms Chanfreau said they found a similar result when analysing another set of survey data on 2,679 children aged 11 to 15 in the UK– this also showed no significant statistical difference in the level of wellbeing among children in the three types of family when the effects of family type were studied in isolation.

[She] told the conference: “We found that the family type had no significant effect on the happiness of the [two groups of children.]

“It’s the quality of the relationships in the home that matters–not the family composition.

Getting on well with siblings, having fun with the family at weekends, and having a parent who reported rarely or never shouting when the child was naughty, were all linked with a higher likelihood of being happy all the time among seven-year olds.

“Pupil relations at school are also important–being bullied at school . . . [was] strongly associated with lower happiness in the seven-year-olds, for instance.”

The study found that relationships between the children, their siblings, parents and other children were important.

Parents who didn’t shout at their children to correct them, children who went on activities with their families, and a lack of being bullied at school all made the children happier, irrespective of whether the family consisted of a single parent, a step-parent or two biological parents.


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Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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