Child Wellbeing in Two-Parent Families: How do Characteristics and Relationships Matter?

WCPC Seminar Series on Poverty and Policy: Spring 2011

Presented by Lonnie Berger
Associate Professor of Social Work
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Monday, May 16, 2011; 12:30 - 1:30 p.m., questions / discussion until 2:00 p.m.
Parrington Hall Forum, Room 309
University of Washington


Lonnie Berger is an Associate Professor of Social Work and faculty affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on the ways in which economic resources, sociodemographic characteristics, and public policies affect parental behaviors and child and family wellbeing.  He is engaged in studies in three primary areas: (1) examining the determinants of substandard parenting, child maltreatment, and out-of-home placement for children; (2) exploring associations among socioeconomic factors (family structure and composition, economic resources), parenting behaviors, and children's care, development, and wellbeing; and (3) assessing the influence of public policies on parental behaviors and child and family wellbeing.


High rates of divorce, non-marital fertility, and multi-partnered fertility in the United States in recent decades have led to growing diversity and complexity in children’s family arrangements. Less than half of children born today will spend their entire childhood living with both of their (married) biological parents, and many will live with a social-father (a man who is married to or cohabiting with their biological mother, but to whom they are not biologically related). Prior research indicates that children who spend time in a social-father family exhibit poorer average developmental outcomes than those who live with their biological parents, raising concerns about the wellbeing of these children. Exactly why co-residence with a social father is associated with adverse developmental outcomes for children is unclear, although multiple hypotheses have been proposed. This presentation will use data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to provide a comprehensive examination of such hypotheses by: (a) examining which factors—mothers’ characteristics, fathers’ characteristics, family economic resources, family instability, mother-father relationships, and parent-child relationships—are most important in accounting for differences in cognitive skills and behavior problems between children living in biological- and social-father families; and (b) decomposing gaps in child outcomes into the proportion explained by differences in the characteristics and behaviors of the individuals selecting into each family type and the proportion explained by differences in returns to (effects of) these characteristics and behaviors. This work has implications for better understanding the extent to which adverse associations between living with a social father and child wellbeing may be driven by social selection as opposed to differences in family processes between biological- and social-father families.


See the slides from this presentation here.