The XX Factor

Money, Not Marital Status, Has the Most Impact on How Parents Raise Kids

Marriage doesn’t automatically make you a better parent.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Despite all the attention paid to marital status when it comes to raising kids, a new report from the Council on Contemporary Families finds that, in reality, financial status actually matters more. Sandra Hofferth, a professor at the University of Maryland, examined data released by the Census Bureau in December that measured various parenting practices reported by parents around the country. Despite much conservative hand-wringing over how single moms must be failing to adequately raise their children, Hofferth found that marital status didn’t have much impact on whether kids were getting decent parenting.

Single parents do read to their kids slightly less than married parents, but not by much: six times a week for kids ages 3-5 instead of seven times a week, as married parents do. Both married and unmarried parents monitored TV viewing, with 93 percent of married parents and 90 percent of unmarried parents putting rules on how much and what kinds of TV shows kids can watch. Marital status didn’t have much impact on whether families had meals together, and single mothers actually ate more meals with their kids than married parents. 

What Hofferth found was that it’s money, not marriage, that has the greater impact on parenting practices. This was particularly noticeable when it came to participation in extracurricular activities. “For example, the extracurricular participation in sports of children in families at 200 percent or more of the poverty level is 42.5 percent, while the participation of those in poverty is 22.5 percent, a difference of 20 percentage points,” Hofferth writes. “The difference between children of two married parents and children with a single parent was only 10 percentage points (44 percent vs. 34 percent).” And in the latter case, it’s worth remembering that single parents are more likely to be poor, and therefore their lower rates of having kids in extracurricular activities may owe more to finances than to marital status.

Hofferth argues that, since income has such a tremendous impact on parenting styles, it’s not fair to compare different family types without controlling for finances—her paper actually calls for an independent study doing just that. It’s also important to note that none of these numbers suggest that low-income parents are bad parents. Most parents in all categories are conscientious parents who read to their kids, eat with their kids, and try to keep their kids engaged in activities besides TV-watching. But low-income parents often struggle to find the time, which suggests that more economic opportunities are needed to close up the gaps.

Hofferth is quick to note that while single and cohabiting parents are more likely to be poor, that doesn’t mean that getting them married off is going to cause them to be richer. “The poverty rate of children in married-couple families is much lower—14 percent—but in terms of absolute numbers there are more married than unmarried parents living below the poverty line,” she notes. “In many cases, parents do not marry because they are poor, rather than becoming poor because they are not married.” A lot of couples are understandably unwilling to tie the knot until they become more financially stable, but in the meantime, they are doing what they can to raise their kids right.