Will unmarried cohabitation be banned along with smoking in cars?

Smoking in cars is to be banned because it harms children. So will unmarried cohabitation now be banned?

So, the government is going to ban smoking in cars. I’m not sure it’s a good thing. I think education is generally a better solution than a largely symbolic and unenforceable new law.

Smoking is clearly a nasty habit – one I had for a few years in my late teens and early twenties. And it doesn’t just damage the person who smokes. Some 14% of all children – that’s over 400,000 children – are apparently exposed to cigarette smoke, according to the British Lung Foundation. Some 300,000 GP visits per year involve children with breathing problems that are linked to secondary smoke.

Health professionals have been pushing hard for this new law. Excepting those who think the law is unenforceable, politicians have been queuing up to give their support. Second hand smoke hurts children. So ban it.

But if politicians are going to ban things that hurt children, what about unmarried cohabitation?

The evidence against cohabitation – rather than marriage – is compelling because of the clear and direct links from cohabitation to family breakdown to negative outcomes for children.

Just as smokers who live until they are 90 years old are the exception, couples who don’t marry and stay together are the exception.

Only 7% of parents who are still together with their teenage children are not married. Cohabiting parents are four times more likely to split up compared to married parents. It’s not that cohabiting parents aren’t perfectly capable of being committed. It’s just that so few are.

Some researchers like to claim that this is all about background and the kind of people who marry or not. Selection effect, it’s called. This is true in part. But only in part.

Selection is almost never a full or adequate explanation, not least because people aren’t mindless robots, programmed by their background and unable to make choices for themselves. Also, I’ve written many times about how the usual explanation – that cohabitees tend to have lower incomes or lower education – simply doesn’t account for the doubling of lone parenthood since 1980. Better incomes and better education should have reduced family breakdown, not increased it.

No, the reason is clear. It’s the trend away from marriage.

Having split up and become lone parents, children’s outcomes then tend to suffer on almost every indicator. Health, well-being, relationships, academics, truancy, crime, etc.

Am I damning lone parents? Not for one second. I am a champion of lone parents who do a heroic job single-handed.

But it should be no surprise that single-handed is not often as good as double-handed. So children will get as much love and care and attention as their single-handed parent can manage. But they are bound to miss out on the additional resources that come from having two parents: the twin resources of time and money that gives most families the extra capacity to cope; and the input from both parents. Input from mothers tends to be the most important factor for children. But input from fathers is also important for role-modelling, discipline, support for mum, and different ways of doing things.

Whereas secondary smoking affects half a million children each year, family breakdown affects three million children, half of which come from the split up of unmarried cohabiting parents. Unmarried cohabitation is strongly linked to poor outcomes for children, via the high risk that unmarried couples will split up sooner or later.

It wouldn’t be my choice. But will politicians now ban that too?


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