Legal Status and Effects on Children

32 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2007

Date Written: March 16, 2007


One of the haunting claims of each poor, unmarried mother in Edin and Kefalas' Promises I Can Keep is that at least she can guarantee she will love her child, even though she cannot promise to make a lifelong commitment to a mate. That love, each young mother says, will be a sustaining gift both to her and the child. Similarly, in work done by sociologists McLanahan and Garfinkel to counteract the claim that it was not single parenting that made children's prospects dim, but poverty, sociologists have found that many of the bad effects of single parenting go away when wealth is taken into account.

So, is love the answer here, or is it wealth? Does a legal marriage (let alone a two-tiered marriage) even matter, at least insofar as children's welfare is concerned?

My recent empirical work with sociologist Steven Nock indicates that in fact love, measured in terms of parental warmth, is important to children's psychological well-being. We are using the Child Development Survey portion of the PSID (from the University of Michigan), which contains nearly 2700 children in a nationally representative sample. Love continues to remain important both in terms of impact and statistically though other variables are added. Wealth, measured in terms of total family wealth divided by the census needs standard for a family of that size, initially seems important to child wellbeing (on measures of depression, acting out, self-esteem and self-efficacy). However, unlike love, wealth's significance entirely disappears once family structure and particularly legal status like marriage and adoption comes into play.

'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all., wrote Tennyson, and, we find, better to have married even if the marriage does not work out than never to have married. Children do better if they are in two parent, married homes, but are worse off in homes where their mothers never married even than in cases where the mother married, divorced, remarried and was widowed. Similarly, children do better where their fathers are living in the home, but less well with stepparents unless the stepparents adopt them. Children who live with relatives (let alone foster parents) do less well than those who are adopted by third parties.

These rather dramatic findings suggest that law and public policy (as an instrument of law) should encourage and support marriage, particularly marriages that last. (They also suggest supporting adoption rather than foster care, though that is not the subject of this conference.) Law can do this in part merely by leaving well enough alone - by NOT adopting domestic partnership laws that equate unmarried, cohabiting couples with those that are married, and by NOT getting rid of special privileges enjoyed by the married when academics clamor that such benefits are not fair. Law ought also to make pre-marriage counseling and skills building more attractive and affordable, as some states have done through lower license costs, and some sort of real counseling effort requisite to divorces on non-fault grounds, as the covenant marriage movement suggests. Laws can be written to require mutual consent for divorce, or to become two-tier on the birth of children, so that the waiting period for no-fault separation and divorce lengthens.

Keywords: Families, children, parents, norms, race, love, status, marriage, adoption

JEL Classification: J12, J13, K19

Suggested Citation

Friedlander Brinig, Margaret and Nock, Steven L., Legal Status and Effects on Children (March 16, 2007). Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 07-21. Available at SSRN: or

Margaret Friedlander Brinig (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
3157 Eck Hall of Law
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States
574-631-2303 (Phone)
574-631=8078 (Fax)

Steven L. Nock

University of Virginia ( email )

Cabell Hall, Room 543
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
804-924-6519 (Phone)

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