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Recently, the Brookings Institute published “The Marriage Effect: Money or Parenting?” — a report that looks into what matters more for children’s well-being — having married parents, being in a financially stable family or parents with good parenting skills.   Parenting

While the report acknowledges that marriage promotion efforts haven’t worked, marriage does seem to offer some benefits to kids. But, analysts wondered well, why — is it because there’s more money or better parenting, a combination of both or something else. As the report states:

The benefits of marriage in terms of children’s outcomes and life chances seem clear. The difficulty is teasing out the key factors. Our analysis suggests that both the higher incomes and the more engaged parenting of married parents count for a good deal. If anything, parenting may matter a little more. … Marriage is a powerful means by which incomes can be raised and parenting can be improved. tweet

Not all married parents offer “engaged parenting” — marriage alone doesn’t make anyone a better parent. And although it’s often college-educated couples that are tying the knot nowadays, education does not necessarily make someone a better parent.

So, where should we be putting out efforts? Pushing marriage? It’s not working. Creating more jobs, raising the minimum wage and providing affordable childcare? Better, but still no guarantee that people will become better parents. So the report suggests “policies to increase the incomes of unmarried parents, especially single parents, and to help parents to improve their parenting skills, should be where policy energy is now expended.”

As Isabel V. Sawhill of Brookings states:

Because the conversation has focused so heavily on marriage, we have lost sight of the fact that it is the quality of parenting that really matters, not just the structure of the family. …. We also need a new ethic of responsible parenthood. That means not having a child before you and your partner really want one and have thought about how you will care for that child. tweet

Well, amen (although her language assumes that the person who wants a child must have a partner; there are many single men and women who are financially secure enough to have a child solo). But I agree — people who want to have kids should give parenting a lot more thought, regardless of whether they are partnered or not. But how do we make that happen?

Some have suggested that parents be licensed — even in the U.S., one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a staggering 15 percent of children suffer from hunger and many more from abuse — but as I’ve written before, based on what criteria and supervised by whom?

Others have suggested mandatory premarital training, but that has mixed results. Plus, what marital skills do we teach and what kind of marriage are we talking about — traditional marriage? And therein lies the problem.

As Susan Pease Gadoua and I suggest in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, if we continue to raise kids in a love-based marital model, we will continue to see the same results. And if we continue to create policies catering to a traditional nuclear family structure when so few families look like that, we will continue to see the same results.

But what does it really mean to ask for a “new ethic of responsible parenthood” for the many young, poor women who see having children as “an absolutely essential part of a young woman’s life, the chief source of identity and meaning” as well as a mature, responsible choice, as Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas discovered in their ground-breaking book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. It’s dangerous to view the expectations of less-privileged single moms through the myopic expectations of the middle class.

Maybe society’s focus should be on promoting responsible caregiving — that removes the stigma of  “single moms” as being “bad for society” (and let’s not forget, most of those children also have a single father who does not seem to suffer the same stigma), and it also elevates all caregiving, an essential part of society that includes caring for the elderly and the ill and disabled (91 percent of welfare benefits go to the elderly, disabled and working households).

What do you think?

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