Researchers from the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health have published a plain English guide to their research. The guide, entitled Life Gets Under Your Skin demonstrates the health benefits in adulthood of a stable family life during childhood.
The research shows that early childhood measurements can predict aspects of health and wellbeing throughout life. Children who have a good start in life not only have happier and healthier childhoods, but also enjoy far-reaching benefits in adulthood.
The main risk factors include not being breastfed, maternal depression, poverty, parental unemployment, area deprivation and most interestingly from my personal and professional point of view, family living arrangements, namely having separated parents.
The research has found that family living arrangements are related to children’s physical and emotional health. Children whose parents remain married throughout early childhood are less likely to suffer from breathing problems such as asthma, become overweight, or be injured in an accident compared to children who have experienced a more unstable family situation. The research also shows that children of lone mothers are more likely to have some types of behavioural problems than children in two-parent families.
A closer look at the research shows a crucial nuance behind the findings. Households that experience instability tend to be worse off financially than households with stably married parents, and this is one of the main reasons why children in unstable households are more likely to have health and behavioural problems. It is not growing up in a lone parent household or having separated parents per se that is the problem– it is the fact that these families tend to be worse off financially and experience significant economic disadvantage compared to dual income families.
I believe that organisations such as the Marriage Foundation who draw a direct link between marriage breakdown and negative outcomes for children are over-simplifying the issue and missing the point. More worryingly, the government to some extent seems to endorse this negative attitude towards separated families. Instead of simply championing marriage as the gold standard, I am firmly of the opinion that the government should instead focus its policy efforts on tackling the realities of child poverty and the serious financial disadvantages faced by separated parents and their children. The solution is not to merely try and keep parents together or encourage marriage by way of tax breaks or “back to basics” rhetoric. Surely an unhappy marriage where daily life is characterised by conflict and tension is equally if not more damaging to a child’s health and happiness?
Gingerbread is a fantastic organisation which provides advice and practical support for single parent families and campaigns on their behalf. Their “Make it Work for Single Parents” campaign calls for the government to make a guaranteed route out of poverty for lone parents, get 250,000 more lone parents into work by 2020, employ a different attitude to work and school hours, and unlock single parents’ skills and potential. These types of measures would undoubtedly see a vast improvement in children’s social, physical and emotional wellbeing.
Unfortunately it is all too easy for the government to sit back and endorse marriage as the gold standard rather than take any real action to address the economic difficulties facing millions of families across the country.