Family Instability and Selection Effects on Children

Paula Fomby, Johns Hopkins University
Andrew J. Cherlin, Johns Hopkins University

A growing body of literature suggests that children who experience multiple transitions in family structure may fare worse developmentally than children raised in stable two-parent families and perhaps even than children raised in stable, single-parent families. This body of research presents what we call the instability hypothesis, the prediction that children are affected by disruption and changes in family structure as much as (or even more than) by the type of family structures they experience. A plausible alternative is that multiple transitions and negative child outcomes may be associated with each other through common causal factors reflected in the parents’ antecedent behaviors and attributes. We call this the selection hypothesis. We test the selection hypothesis against the instability hypothesis in a statistical analysis of nationally representative longitudinal data (NLSY79 and its mother-child supplement, the CNLSY) that includes detailed information on children’s behavioral and cognitive development, family history, and mother’s background prior to the child’s birth.

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Presented in Session 42: Union Dissolution