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  • New research looking at 3 Northern European countries finds that what fathers do when presented with the opportunity to take paid parental leave predicts their relationship stability going forward. Tweet This
  • New research out of the UK finds that children born into cohabiting unions are less likely to be born into happy relationships. Tweet This

Many parents have spent more time each day with their minor children in the last three months than ever before, even though the pandemic has also separated even some nuclear families. It seems like an appropriate time to highlight just how much parents and children influence one another, using recent research from around the world. Consider the following findings from four recent studies:

  • A study in Nepal found that good relationships between parents are beneficial for children’s outcomes.
  • A study in the UK found children with cohabiting parents are less likely to have the benefit of good parental relationships.
  • Investing in a child is good for parental relationships, per a study in Northern Europe.
  • And losing a child is unhealthy for parental relationships, per a study out of West and Central Africa.

While it might seem overly obvious that good relationships between parents are good for children, Sarah Brauner-Otto, William Axinn, and Dirgha Ghimire’s recent study highlighting evidence from Nepal shows how this plays out in a setting characterized by early marriage. 

First, the study showed that children whose parents love each other more have more educational success. Sometimes we think so much about economics—we easily understand that children whose parents stay together are better able to afford higher education—that we don’t stop to think about how peace and joy at home can also augment children’s formation. Education of course matters for work and earnings, and it is also important for health, marital, and childbearing experiences. So the big take away here is that parental love contributes to both human capital and to future relationships in less developed countries, just like in the Global North. 

Moreover, Brauner-Otto and her colleagues also show that parental love delays marriage longer than can be explained by it contributing to staying in school. Delayed marriage can enhance children’s life chances immensely where the median age of marriage for women is only 17.9 (it has increased to 17.9 in Nepal in recent years). Marrying older decreases risk of domestic violence, divorce, poor mental health, as well as both maternal and child death. A little more parental love goes a long way!

The authors explain that in Nepal, where living with parents or a spouse are among the few available options, and where children are getting more say in who they marry, young adults living with loving parents may have higher expectations for marriage, and therefore wait for a good match (they experience less “pull” from barely acceptable potential mates). They are also less likely to be in a conflictual home that they want to leave (they experience less “push” into marriage). The authors focus on setting-specific differences in the consequences of parental relationship quality, but also (rightly) claim their “study also provides evidence of the long-lasting influence parental relationships have on their children across a wide range of settings.” Good parental relationships are good for children in Nepal and around the world. 

But low-quality parental relationships often result in children. We really don’t need evidence to accept this premise, but what Brienna Perelli-Harris and Niels Blum’s sophisticated research from the United Kingdom shows is that one of the reasons children born in cohabitation are disadvantaged is that relationships don’t have to clear some “quality bar” before having children the way they generally must before couples marry.

Perelli-Harris and Blum dove into the thorny puzzle of why family trajectories diverge, “with the advantaged more likely to marry and have children within marriage, and the disadvantaged more likely to have children within cohabitation and experience union instability.” Instead of explaining the divergence using solely economic factors (e.g., people with good jobs are more likely to marry), they investigated whether some of marriage’s relative stability comes from happier couples being more likely to marry. 

The answer? Yes, it does. Those who were “extremely” or “perfectly” happy with their relationship married twice as quickly as people who were “happy” or “very happy.” 

But the extremely or perfectly happy cohabiting folks did not have children more quickly. Less happy cohabiters were just as likely to have children. This means that children born into cohabiting unions are less likely to be born into happy relationships. Ouch. The disadvantages that accrue from being born to less educated and less employable parents (on average) are compounded by having less happy parents. If cohabitation were prevalent in Nepal (it barely exists there), these would likely be the kids whose parents loved each other less and who married early. Their disadvantages in the UK compound during cohabitation rather than early marriage, but both relationship trajectories leave disadvantaged kids with parents who are more likely to split.

While I mourn these burdens, I also take heart from new research from three countries in Northern Europe indicating that parental relationship quality can grow. Trude Lappegård and her colleagues showed that investing time in childcare is positive for parental relationships. Specifically, fathers who are involved with their children early in life are more likely to stay with the children’s mother. The study showed that what fathers do when presented with the opportunity to take paid parental leave predicts relationship stability going forward. Relationship quality shouldn’t be thought of as a static thing.

Unfortunately, that also means relationships can get worse. In another recent study, Abigail Weitzman and Emily Smith-Greenaway linked child death to wife-beating in 13 countries of West and Central Africa. The risk of intimate partner violence was significantly higher among women who had lost a child, especially in areas with lower child mortality rates. This indicates that the grief and stress that come with child loss are more consequential when losing a child is relative rare. 

In sum, parents' relationships with each other matter to children and parental experiences with their children also matter to couple relationships. As we continue to spend more time with our kids through the summer months, may we sow good things into our children’s lives, as they sow into ours.

Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project.