Nontraditional Families And Child Development Research Paper

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The process of development among children and adolescents growing up in different kinds of family environments has long been a topic of interest to social scientists. For many years, most researchers have assumed that conditions for child development are most favorable in families that include two heterosexual parents, one of each sex, who are married to one another, and who are biologically related to the child. Fathers in such families are assumed to be employed fulltime outside the home, and mothers are assumed to work only in the home, where they are responsible for childcare and upkeep of the household, but do not earn money. Even though the existence of such so-called ‘traditional families’ has not characterized much of human history, and even though many families today—even in Westernized countries—do not fit this pattern, it has nevertheless been widely assumed as the norm against which other family rearing environments should be measured (Lamb 1999).

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There are a number of ways in which families may differ from a ‘traditional family,’ and hence be regarded as ‘nontraditional.’ For instance, in many families, mothers are participating in the labor market; indeed, in the USA today, most mothers of young children and even infants are employed outside the home. At least in part as a result, many infants and children spend some of their waking hours in childcare settings outside of the family home. Many families include only one parent (whether because of parental separation, divorce, or other reasons), and many families include parents who are not biologically related to their children (e.g., adoptive parents, stepparents). In addition, many children are growing up in families headed by lesbian or gay parents, and may thus live with two same-sex parents.

1. Research On Nontraditional Families

What is known about child development in nontraditional families, and about the impact of nontraditional family contexts on child development? It is widely agreed that multiple interacting factors in intersecting trajectories can influence the development of children in different kinds of family environments. Thus, no single perspective or factor is likely to account for all of the variation that can be observed. An important lesson to be learned from research on child development in nontraditional family environments, however, has been that family stability, and the qualities of relationships and interactions among family members are likely to be more important than family structure and household composition as proximal determinants of outcomes for children and adolescents. In families and households whose membership remains stable over time, it is not so much who the parents are or where the children are cared for during the hours while parents work, but what the child’s interactions with parent figures are like, and the qualities of family relationships that are likely to have the greatest influences on the development of children and teenagers growing up in them. Research on nontraditional families suggests that, given reasonable stability of family membership over time, it is family process rather than family structure that provides the final common pathway through which outcomes for children and adolescents emerge (Amato 1994, Patterson 1997, Lamb 1999).

2. Research On Parental Divorce And Child Development

Research on parental divorce and remarriage has illustrated how stressful interparental conflict and family disruption can be in childhood and in adolescence. On scales designed to assess stressful experiences in childhood and adolescence, parental separation and divorce rank near the top. In addition, other events that are commonly associated with parental divorce (e.g., moving from one home to another, entering a new school) are also extremely stressful. As a result, it is not surprising that children of divorce show elevated behavior problem profiles, are more likely to have difficulties in school, and are more often referred for mental health treatment than are same-aged children from nondivorced homes. Although some of these problems are typically resolved within two years after the divorce, others persist. Adolescent offspring of divorced parents are also more likely than others to show conduct problems, to drop out of high school, to be unemployed, to be involved in delinquent activities, and to associate with antisocial peers (Hetherington et al. 1998). Some of these difficulties extend even into adulthood (Cherlin et al. 1991, Hetherington et al. 1998). Many of the problems experienced by children and adolescents when their parents divorce seem to have begun even before parental separation or divorce (Amato and Booth 1996, Block et al. 1986), and are associated primarily with poor quality parent–child relationships and interactions. Consistent with this view, when children’s predivorce levels of functioning are taken into account, in longitudinal designs, differences in adjustment after divorce are reduced (Amato and Booth 1996, Block et al. 1986). Similarly, when contacts with noncustodial parents following divorce are studied, it is the quality rather than the frequency of contact that is related to children’s adjustment (Emery 1988). Taken together, results of research on divorce seem to highlight the importance for children of parent–child relationships that buffer them from the effects of stressful life changes.

3. Research On Child Development In Other Types Of Nontraditional Families

As difficult for children as family instability and difficulties in parent–child relations can be, other variations from the so-called ‘traditional family’ arrangements, especially those that do not involve disruption of the family unit, seem to be less troublesome.

3.1 Maternal Employment And Nonparental Childcare Arrangements

One deviation from the ‘traditional family’ norm that seems to have little or no negative impact on children is maternal employment. Mothers’ participation in the labor force has increased dramatically in the USA since the mid-twentieth century (Gottfried et al. 1999), with the result that most mothers of infants and young children are now employed. Results of a large and diverse body of research now show convincingly that maternal employment per se is not detrimental to the development of children or adolescents; far more important than the fact of maternal employment are the actual parent–child relationships within the family (Gottfried et al. 1999). Interestingly, one correlate of maternal employment in dual-earner families seems to be increased paternal involvement with children; again, the impact of such increased involvement is likely to be associated with the qualities of actual father–child interactions. Related to the increase in maternal employment during recent years is a concomitant increase in the use of out-of-home childcare arrangements. Here again, despite concerns that children and especially infants might be put at risk by outof-home care arrangements, research has shown that high-quality out-of-home care has little or no discernible impact upon existing parent–child relationships or upon children’s overall levels of adjustment.

3.2 Adoptive Families

Another way in which families can differ from the ‘traditional’ normative family is through adoption. Adoptive families may be very like ‘traditional families’ in all ways except the adoption of a child who is biologically unrelated to the parents, or they may be different in many respects (e.g., number or sexual orientation of parents). Consistent with the notion that family stability is an important influence on children’s development, one of the best predictors of adoptive children’s overall adjustment is the age at which they were adopted. Those who were adopted early in life (e.g., before the age of two years) are, on average, more well-adjusted than those who were adopted later, or who have had many placements (Brodzinsky 1987). Other research has suggested that adoptive parents, who are generally highly motivated for parenthood, provide home environments that are at least equal to those provided by parents whose children are biologically related to them. Although a minority of adopted adolescents experience difficulties relating to their status as adoptees, most report that being adopted is only a minor part of their identity (Bemon & Sharma 1994).

3.3 Families Headed By Lesbian And Gay Parents

Even though parents are generally expected to be heterosexual, many families also include one or more parents who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual (Patterson 1992, 1997, Patterson and Chan 1999, Tasker and Golombok 1991). In some cases, children are born to a heterosexual couple in the context of a marriage that eventually breaks up when one or both marital partners adopts a non-heterosexual identity. In these families, children may then grow up with either a custodial and/or a noncustodial lesbian, gay, or bisexual parent. In other families, lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults become parents after assuming nonheterosexual identities. In these families, children may be adopted or they may be conceived in one of a variety of different ways (e.g., using donor insemination or surrogacy arrangements).

Despite negative expectations voiced by many different observers, research by social scientists has failed to reveal any detrimental effects attributable to the experience of growing up with lesbian, gay, or bisexual parents (Patterson 1992, 1997, Tasker and Golombok 1991, 1997). In childhood, children of lesbian mothers are no more likely than other children to have conduct problems or social difficulties. Children with lesbian mothers are no more likely than those with heterosexual mothers to show disturbances in sex-role development. The overall life adjustment of the young adult offspring of divorced lesbian as compared with divorced heterosexual mothers is quite similar (Tasker and Golombok 1997). Research has yet to focus on children born to or adopted by gay fathers, or on adolescents or young adults who were born to lesbian or gay parents. Results of available research, however, suggest that in many ways development of children of lesbian and gay parents is similar to that of children in more ‘traditional’ family settings (Patterson and Chan 1999).

Although development of children with lesbian or gay parents is similar in many ways to that among children in ‘traditional’ families, there are also some notable differences. For instance, young adult off-spring of divorced lesbian mothers report more positive attitudes about lesbian and gay people than do the same-aged offspring of divorced heterosexual mothers (Tasker and Golombok 1997). Another clear difference between the experiences of children parented by lesbian or gay versus heterosexual couples involves the divisions of family labor that are likely to be observed in their homes. Children raised by lesbian or gay couples are more likely than those raised by heterosexual couples to observe their parents using egalitarian divisions of labor, especially for childcare. Some research suggests that relatively equal division of childcare duties may be associated with positive outcomes among children of lesbian mothers, but other studies suggest that it is unrelated to child outcomes except insofar as it relates to parental relationship satisfaction, and the issue is currently under study (Patterson and Chan 1999).

4. Conclusion And Future Directions

One of the important findings of research on ‘nontraditional families,’ then, is that considerable variation in family structure and membership can occur without measurable detrimental effects on children. As long as family stability is high, and the qualities of parent–child relationships and interactions are good, then children appear capable of developing along positive trajectories within a wide array of different family environments. Thus, even though cultural change has engendered considerable anxiety among many different observers, numerous deviations from the ‘traditional family’ have not proven to be detrimental to development of children. On the contrary, if family stability is maintained and if the qualities of parent–child relationships and family processes are positive, then nontraditional families of many descriptions can provide environments that foster positive child development.

As nontraditional families grow in numbers and proliferate in variety, it seems likely that research on children’s development will increasingly include them. Future research on nontraditional families should focus not only on structural features of these families but also on their functional characteristics, such as qualities of interactions and relationships among family members. Comparisons of important influences on children across family types could yield significant insights into which elements of family life are necessary and which are optional in creating environments that support and enable positive development among children and youth.


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