It’s official. British teenagers are more likely to behave better if their parents are married.
Not only that, but whatever is making the difference is above and beyond the usual explanation – that it’s not marriage per se but the type of people who marry.
The EPPSE report on teenagers academic and socio-behavioural outcomes – published last week by the Department for Education – may not have got the media coverage it deserved, buried beneath frenzied speculation of whether Scotland is about to divorce England. But it was full of interesting tidbits about the factors that help children do better at secondary school. One of the key factors was whether parents were married.
For those who can cope with the academic jargon, here’s what the writers said. (Note that ES means ‘Effect Size’, where all of the numbers below are considered ‘small’)
There are weaker effects linked to parents’ marital status, although there is a tendency for poorer self-regulation and pro-social behaviour and increased hyperactivity and anti-social behaviour for those from single parent families (ES=-0.25 – for self-regulation; ES=-0.28 – for pro-social behaviour; ES=0.24 – for hyperactivity; ES=0.21 – for anti-social behaviour, for students with single parents versus those with married parents). (from page xviii)
The marital status of parents in the early years, when children were first recruited to the study, was also a significant predictor of changes in self-regulation during secondary education (ES=-0.25 – single parent compared to married) and pro-social behaviour (ES=-0.19 – single parent compared to married). Single parent status also predicted increases in hyperactivity (ES=0.24 – single parent versus married) and anti-social behaviour (ES=0.15). Students in lone parent families showed small but statistically significant increases in both negative behaviours and decreases in both positive
behaviours. In addition, students of parents who were living with their partner but unmarried in the early years were found to show small decreases in self-regulation (ES=-0.18) and pro-social behaviour (ES=-0.14) and an increase in hyperactivity (ES=0.15). (from page xxiv)
What all this means is that – regardless of pretty much every parental background factor you could think of – there’s a small but noticeable difference in behaviour between teenagers from married and lone parent families based on whether the parents are married now (first para) or were married when the children were much younger (second para).
Don’t be fooled by the word ‘small’. The ‘small’ net effect of marriage is the most conservative estimate possible.
What’s remarkable is that there is any effect of marriage at all after taking into account gender (boys misbehave), siblings (better if you’ve got lots), ethnicity (black African and Indians do less well), early problems (which keep going), parents employment (the more skilled the better), parents qualifications (those with degrees do best), as well as whether you are entitled to free school meals, had a positive early years home environment, did well earlier in school, and live in a deprived area – or not.
Some of these factors are associated in some way with marriage in the first place. For example, people with a degree are more likely to get married. So it’s fair enough to take education into account. Marriage clearly comes second. But some of the factors could work both ways. For example, a positive home learning environment might easily be the result of the extra commitment the parents make to one another when they get married, and not just that they are supportive people in the first place.
If any of those factors are the result of a couple behaving differently because they got married – which even the most ardent sceptic must admit is at least a possibility – then the full effect of marriage is understated.
And when you’ve ruled out all the other possibilities and still have something left over, then maybe, just maybe, marriage is causing people to behave differently after all.