About the Guest
What factors contribute to a child's success or failure? Brad Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, talks about the impact that single parents are having on our communities. Raised by a single mother, Brad doesn't believe the parents of the 50's and 60's got it all right, since human sin existed then just as it does now, but he does believe that communities pay a price when we don't have a strong marriage culture.
Brad WilcoxW. Bradford Wilcox is Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. As an undergraduate, Wilcox was a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia (’92) and later earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Prior to coming to the University of Virginia, he held research fellowships at Pri...more
Brad Wilcox talks about the impact that single-parent families are having on our communities. Brad believes that communities pay a price when we don’t have a strong marriage culture.
Bob: The incidence of divorce in our culture is sometimes overstated. For example, you’ve probably heard the statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce. That’s just not the case; but researcher, Brad Wilcox, says the trajectory we’re on, as a culture, is not a healthy trajectory.
Brad: We’ve never had the level of divorce like we’ve had today. We’ve never had the level of single parenthood like we have today. And we’re also very affluent country. In some ways, we can afford—we can afford all that—but one of the things we have to recognize is that kids and communities pay a price when we don’t have a strong marriage culture.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, October 9th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll hear today what the stats have to say about the state of marriage and family in the United States. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Thanks for joining us. I feel a little like I’m back in school today with a professor here.
Dennis: We do. I wish our listeners could see all the awards / academic achievements of our guest, Dr. Brad Wilcox. Brad—thanks for being on the broadcast.
Brad: Dennis, it’s great to be here today.
Dennis: Brad got his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, got his PhD from Princeton, has worked in the area of marriage and family studies for almost two decades, and is currently the Director of the National Marriage Project at UVA. He is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Brad has been married to Danielle, his wife, since 1995, and he has a large family. He is also the editor of a book called Gender and Parenthood, along with Dr. Kathleen Kovner Kline.
Brad, you’ve been in the area of marriage and family research now, as I mentioned, for two decades. You’ve been watching people struggle with achieving the American dream. You think there is something that is screaming out of our culture as to why that’s becoming unachievable.
Brad: What we’ve seen in the research on this question—there is a major new study done by Raj Chetty at Harvard University. He and his team looked at the predictors, at the community level, basically, of what predicts the odds that a child who is born poor will, over the course of his life, move into the top fifth—to become wealthy, basically, as an adult. So, it’s one way of sort of tapping the extent to which the American dream is still alive, here in America.
He looked at hundreds of communities across the United States, and he looked at questions like school quality. They found that, not surprisingly, poor kids living in places with high school-quality were more likely to live the American dream—to move up into that top fifth quintile.
But they also found that the most important factor—beyond school-quality, beyond racial segregation, beyond the income inequality in a community—was the share of single mothers in a community. When kids were living in communities with lots of two- parent families, poor kids were much more likely to move up the income ladder to realize the American dream.
Kids, by contrast, living in communities with lots of single moms were much more likely not to move up the income ladder and not to realize the American dream. So, that was the most powerful predictor in their model of what sort of predicts the American dream, at the community level, here in the United States today.
Bob: And this is not because single moms are doing a bad job or aren’t working hard. It’s because they start off with a deficit; don’t they?
Brad: Yes, I mean, I was raised by a single mom. I think there are many adults, out there today, who have flourished in the context of a single-mother household.
But I’m also a sociologist, and I would say to that, “Look, on average”—let’s be honest here—“it’s harder for single moms to raise their kids on their own.
And communities with lots of single moms are less likely to flourish because they don’t have that father in the picture—who is helping kind of shepherd the neighborhood—basically, have a presence in the community that’s helpful and likely to work to the benefit of the kids in that community as well.”
Dennis: We are for single parents here. We love them. We care about them. We want to help them. We have a ton of them who listen to our broadcast, and we want to equip them to do the very best job they can in raising the next generation. And yet, we are in the midst of what some would refer to as a crisis.
Go back to the 1960s, Brad, and paint the picture of what this family formation looked like back then. Were there a lot of single parents back then?
Brad: No, there weren’t. I mean, the vast majority of kids were raised by their own married parents. Divorce was about 20 percent, depending on what kind of study you looked at, and non-marital childbearing was a relatively rare undertaking.
So, things were very different in the United States in the 1960s compared to where they are at today.
Dennis: Statistically, about—what is it?—six/seven percent of all live births occurred to single parent moms back then?
Brad: That’s about right. Yes.
Dennis: And today?
Brad: Forty-one percent.
Dennis: Forty-one percent.
Brad: Almost one in two babies is born outside of marriage.
Dennis: I want our listeners to hear that.
Dennis: That’s in your community—that’s not in somebody else’s.
Brad: Right. What is interesting is that we’ve seen some work—that we’ve been doing at the National Marriage Project—is looking at how what we call “the retreat from marriage”—the fact that fewer Americans are getting and staying married—has really been concentrated among Americans who don’t have college degrees.
So, among folks who do have college degrees—vast, vast majority of those kids are born in marriage. Divorce has actually come down in that community since 1980. Among well-educated Americans, there has been a kind of learning about the importance of marriage / the importance of stability and sort of a distaste for divorce.
Unfortunately, that kind of marital ethic is less and less found among Americans who don’t have that college degree—they make about two-thirds of the adult population, here in the U.S. So, not just inner cities—but in small towns, in rural communities, and in the outer suburbs of America—we are seeing fewer and fewer Americans getting married—more Americans cohabiting and having their kids in cohabiting relationships. That is—that’s a new thing.
Bob: A lot of people will hear Dennis talk about “What was it like, back in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, as compared to today?” They get the idea that we think that the ‘50s and the ‘60s were the Golden Age of marriage and family formation. The truth is—human sin existed in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, just like it exists today. So, however that sin was being expressed then, as compared to now—we were still sinful people back then.
Dennis: There was dysfunction back then.
Bob: Sure there was.
Dennis: No doubt about it. I’m not suggesting a return to the ‘50s and ‘60s and all of its dysfunction. What I want us to just understand is—what’s happening, today, in our country—
Dennis: —in our country.
Brad: That’s right. We’ve never had non-marital child bearing like we have today. We never had the level of single parenthood like we have today, and we’re also a very affluent country. In some ways, we can afford all that—but what I think we have to recognize is—that kids in communities pay a price when we don’t have a strong marriage culture.
Dennis: Let’s talk about that price for a moment. What is the impact—and again, you grew up in a single-parent home—what’s the impact upon a child’s life? What—single parent moms, who are raising their kids today, listening right now—what should they be aware of and where they may be—well, they may be setting their children up to struggle, going forward?
Brad: Right. I think it’s important to start, once again, with sort of a word of hope here—and that is that most kids, who are raised by single moms, turn out okay—but it is the case—it is more difficult. Single moms tend to be a bit more stressed. They tend to be more financially strapped.
They tend to have less time to spend with their kids and to be less affectionate, on average, with their kids.
One of the things we see, for instance, in the research is that single mothers are more likely to engage in something that is called parentification—where they treat their child as kind of an adult peer and as almost even a co-parent, in a sense, in certain contexts. Often, it’s the oldest child or the oldest daughter in the home. They tell them about their fears / their vulnerabilities—maybe their relationship activities. That’s a big burden for a kid to carry.
So, these are the kinds of things to be sensitive to—instead of like seeking counsel from or support / emotional support from your child—sort of seek that out from your friends, from your family members, or from people in your community.
Dennis: It points out the need for them to have relationships outside that home that are healthy peer relationships. And the church ought to be the place where you could have those relationships.
Brad: That’s right. And I think, even today, particularly with social media and with TV, there is a kind of temptation just to kind of live in your own little world and not to really engage friends, family members, a local church community, for instance. Yet, we know from literally tons of research—not to mention, Aristotle, way back in the day—that people who have those strong, social relationships—who are embedded in real communities that are meaningful / require sacrifices of them but are also there for them—are much more likely to flourish than people who are kind of doing it on their own or in their own little, privatized leisure world.
Bob: When you and I have talked to single parents—whether it is single moms or single dads—a lot of them have expressed to us this idea that you really have to lower your parenting objectives down to the core issues / the survival issues and set some things, that you’d like to do, aside just because there is no capacity to do them or no opportunity to do them.
Then, they’ve also talked about how important it is to have, not only relationships for themselves outside of the family,—
—but also for their kids to be exposed to other adults outside the family.
Dennis: Yes, and I’m thinking of a single parent mom who, fortunately, had parents who were engaged in her life as she was raising her kids. For instance, one of the grandparents said, “I’ll take your daughter through Passport2Purity® and go on the weekend with her and walk her through that. We’ll share some of the burden and the load around some of these core life issues.”
And you know, Bob, Passport2Purity is a weekend getaway where the same-sex parent—or in this case, a grandparent—takes the child away and they have the talk around the birds-and-the-bees, around peer pressure, around all the temptations of adolescence that will come their way around the age of 10, 11, 12, 13—somewhere in there—so that you can prepare the child for what they are going to face in adolescence.
And it seems to me, Brad, that’s part of the danger that a single parent ought to be aware of—that if they don’t take the time to do the proper preparation—
—their children are going to be more susceptible to temptations in the culture.
Brad: There’s no question about it. Kids are much more likely to navigate the culture successfully when their parents or grandparents are in their corner—watching TV shows with them / sort of setting some frameworks for both TV, and internet, smartphones with them—than kids who don’t have that engaged parent—not just setting rules for them—but really engaging them over the questions that they are thinking about when it comes to consumption of, not just TV, but also what’s on social media and the like today.
Dennis: I want to talk about something that is pretty hard stuff—and this could offend some of our listeners, at this point—but I’ve found in the research that I’ve looked at—and I know you’ve seen it—that some of the consequences of being raised in a single- parent home are pretty serious.
Go over some of those consequences, if you would, because these are real. Frankly, in an interesting way, these are an apologetic for marriage and family.
Brad: We know, for instance, that boys—who are raised outside of an intact married home by their single mothers—are twice as likely to end up in prison or jail by the time they turn 30, compared to their peers who are raised with both their married parents. And that’s controlling for things like income, and education, and race, and ethnicity. This is a pretty strong association in the research.
We know that the delinquency is remarkably higher among adolescents who have been raised in a single-parent home compared to a two-parent home. We know that dropping out of high school—about the same story. There is kind of this common pattern of risk when it comes to things like delinquency, dropping out of school, using drugs, being pregnant, as a teenager.
The other interesting piece here is—there is a question—there actually is also a really important point for single parents—around issues of family instability; okay?
So, what we are seeing more and more in the research is that kids—who are exposed to kind of a family or relationship carousel, where there are people coming in and out of the household or they are forming a tie with someone as a social father, for instance, and then he leaves and then a new guy comes in and he leaves—that’s much more traumatic for a child than when a—like say a mother is a stable single mother, without a series of men coming through the household.
So, part of the story here is—you have to protect your kids from adults who don’t have their best interests at heart or who aren’t invested in them. That’s one, I think, positive thing that a single parent can do—is be careful about his or her approach to relationships, for instance, in terms of how the kids are exposed to people.
Bob: You are basically saying that: “Because I’m a single parent, my kids are going to be drug users, they’re going to be delinquents, they’re going to be in trouble with the law,—
—and they are going to go on to form unstable family relationships. I might as well throw in the towel now.” What do you say to them?
Brad: It’s important to realize, here, that we are talking about—number one, based upon some research that a colleague of mine at UVA did in psychology—what she found was that basically—was about 10 percent of kids from intact married families, with both parents there, had some serious problems. About 25-30 percent of single mothers had some kids with some serious problems. The point is that, in both cases, the clear majority of kids from both those kinds of homes did fine; but there is a greater risk.
I think—if you have a couple of kids, as we do, for instance—realize some of my kids are pretty darn resilient. You throw anything at them, and they are just going to kind of bounce back. Others of my kids are not that resilient—they are pretty sensitive. There is a certain kind of fragility there—for those kids, something like a divorce would be devastating. You have to recognize that kids are different.
In some cases, kids are going to be pretty resilient, in the face of divorce or single parenthood; but in other cases, they are not.
But the other piece that I’m trying to add here is that we are seeing, in the United States, especially, the kind of—what my colleague, Andrew Cherlin, has called the “marriage-go-round.” It’s actually the relationship-go-round, where people are having multiple relationships, with kids in the household. That’s really the most dangerous thing we see in the US today.
Dennis: So, would you advise a single-parent mom, who is raising a bunch of kids—would you advise her to begin thinking about forming a permanent relationship called marriage? You grew up in a home—you said—did your mom ever remarry?
Brad: No, she did not. Yes.
Dennis: Do you wish she would have?
Brad: Given what I know now about stepfamilies and a sense of sort of the family instability piece, I’m not sure about that. I’m glad that she was actually pretty careful about all that. We didn’t have a series of men coming through the household when I was growing up, and I’m grateful.
The way I’d answer your question is this:
I think that—and as in many things, adults need to decide about sort of how they are going to approach their relationships with other adults, especially in view of their kids. I’m not saying that a single mother shouldn’t get married, but she should be prudent—she should be careful in how she approaches getting to know someone, and how she introduces him to her kids, and make an effort to do that slowly and be discerning about his character. The same thing is true for a single father—doing the same thing with a woman that he is dating.
Dennis: Right. You may have a dating relationship for a while, but the idea of sliding into a relationship where you cohabit is not a good idea—that marriage and a family are established by a commitment and a decision. That commitment is what forges the most secure relationship that children need today.
Brad: That’s right. We find, in a study that I’m doing with Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades at the University of Denver—
—we find, basically, that people who are kind of deliberate about their sequencing / their relationship, prior to getting married, are much more likely to report high quality marriages; whereas, folks, who live together without any kind of commitment of marriage / without engagement, are much more likely to report lower quality marriages.
It goes right to your point about—it’s important here, as you think about something like entering into a serious romantic relationship, that you do so deliberately and you seek to kind of establish a common ground / a common friendship as you go forward.
Bob: We haven’t really talked about the spiritual dimension of life and whether that’s a factor in all of this, but I have to believe that someone’s faith in God—their participation in a local church, their prayer life, their time in the Bible—is having an impact. Single parents /intact families—this has got to be making a difference; isn’t it?
Brad: John Bartkowski has found that religion is, on average, a force for good for kids in a variety of contexts—
—but the key caveat there is that—for instance, for married folks—that they are on the same page, religiously, basically. Not, obviously, in every—but they are both attending church together.
What we have found in our own research, at the National Marriage Project, is that one of the best predictors of a high-quality marriage is that, when both spouses have the sense that God is present in their marriage—that’s more important than attending church together—you know, beyond just sort of the Sunday routine, there is a way in which people have a relationship with God—that perception is linked to some pretty strong marital outcomes—good ones.
Bob: Can you tell our listeners what the National Marriage Project is? The University of Virginia is sanctioning this—they are behind it; right?
Brad: There are many research projects / there are many initiatives—there are many groups at UVA—and I happen to be one of them—the National Marriage Project. What we do is—we look at marriage trends in America.
We look at—how the culture, how the economy, how the civil society—are affecting marriage and family life for kids. We try to be a voice to/for the notion that marriage is the ideal context for the rearing of kids.
Bob: You know, 50 years ago, that would have been mainstream. Today, it’s counter-cultural.
Brad: Yes, I mean, things have obviously changed a great deal when it comes to all of this. I don’t think anyone really knows where we’re headed on this question of marriage and family in the United States; but what’s also, I think, interesting is that—whether you look at things like child abuse, whether you look at things like graduating from college, whether you look at things like depression—what you find is that kids, who are raised in intact married families are much more likely to be flourishing. Despite all of the changes that we see in the country, it’s still the case that this sort of model of married family life tends to do the best for our kids.
Dennis: Your research really—it doesn’t confirm that the Bible is true, but it reflects the reality that what the Bible represents really is true—whether people’s opinion in the culture embrace the Bible or not. In Genesis 2—this is God speaking—He said, “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother…shall hold fast to his wife…and they shall become one flesh.”
There is a progression there—leaving the family you’ve come from / cleaving—that is a commitment to stick like glue for a lifetime. That’s a decision we make to form a covenant with the person that we’re marrying—and then, become one—spend a lifetime, not just becoming one flesh through intercourse, but becoming one as we, spiritually,—back to the point you made, Bob—as we pursue God together.
I personally have been encouraged by your research.
I am really glad, Brad, you joined us here on today’s broadcast. I’ve been looking forward to getting you here on the program for a number of years. You really are in a key spot for those of us who are advocates on behalf of marriage and family. And I just appreciate you joining us.
Brad: Dennis, it’s my pleasure to be here today.
Bob: Well, and I should also, probably, let listeners know about the research that you’ve done. It’s available in a booklet called “Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences.” This is the Third Edition of that document, and we have it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. There is more information there about the “Why Marriage Matters” booklet that Brad has contributed to. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call if you have questions at 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.”
Now, I keep thinking about our mission, here at FamilyLife, as we’ve talked with Brad today about what’s going on in the culture, related to marriage and family.
We are committed, as a ministry, to effectively developing godly families.
I had somebody ask me recently, “So, how do you measure godliness in a family?” I thought, “Well, I don’t know if I have a tool to calibrate how it’s doing; but I do know that the criteria includes things like love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and kindness, and goodness, and faithfulness, and self-control.” I mean—the fruit of the Spirit in a marriage and a family really is evidence of whether we have a godly family or not.
Our goal, here at FamilyLife, is to do all we can do to help cultivate that kind of a dynamic in every family in the world. Of course, that begins with a fundamental, spiritual change in the lives of people who are in rebellion against God. And we are so grateful for those of you who partner with us in seeing this mission accomplished—
—those of you who share our passion to want to see marriages and families strengthened and growing in godliness. We appreciate our Legacy Partners, who make donations each month, and those of you who are contributing occasionally. We are grateful for your financial support.
In fact, if you can help with a donation today, we’d like to say, “Thank you,” in a tangible way. We’d like to send you a new resource that Barbara Rainey and her team have put together for your home. It’s a chalkboard in the shape of a house. At the top, it says, “In this home we give thanks.” There is a place for you to write on the chalkboard the things you are thankful for. This is our thank-you gift to you when you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation.
You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on the button that says, “I Care,” in the upper right-hand corner of the page—you make your donation online and request the chalkboard when you do that. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a donation over the phone. Again, ask for the chalkboard.
Or you can request the chalkboard and mail a donation to FamilyLife Today at P O Box 7111, Little Rock, AR. And our zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow, we are going to do a little different kind of diagnostic. We’re going to talk about why being a pastor is a dangerous calling. We’re going to draw some attention to pastors since this is Pastor Appreciation Month. Hope you can join us back as we talk to Paul David Tripp tomorrow.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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