Young children of unmarried parents fare worse when a father's support is court-ordered

Young children of unmarried parents who live with their mother and receive court-mandated financial support from their father exhibit more aggressive behavior than those who don't get any formal support at all, according to a Rutgers University Study.

In analyzing data from a study of nearly 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000, Lenna Nepomnyaschy, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, also found that 5-year-old children have increased cognitive skills when their father provides cash support without being forced to do so by a legal agreement. The data comes from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study in 20 large U.S. cities.

"We want to be careful and not say that formal support is bad," says Nepomnyaschy who worked on the study published in Social Service Review with researchers from the University of Wisconsin. "For most mothers it is hugely important. But it might not be working for all types of families."

Nepomnyaschy says prior research focused only on how financial support affected the children of divorced parents. Today, however, nearly 40 percent of children are born to unmarried parents, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. And never married mothers represent the largest proportion of single parent families in the United States.

What this new research indicates is that at least for young children of unmarried parents an informal agreement between the mother and father – with paternal involvement in the child's life – might lead to a better overall emotional environment.

"One possible reason why children whose fathers provide informal support might be exhibiting better vocabulary, verbal skills and scholastic aptitude is that these fathers not only give money to the mother when they can, but they also come around and are more involved in the child's life," Nepomnyaschy says. "So from a policy perspective we have to ask ourselves is it the money or the father's involvement that makes the difference in the child's life? Or is it a combination of both?"

According to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, only 20 percent of unmarried fathers not living with their children paid formal child support by the time the child was 3-years-old, while 40 percent provided informal support. Many of these low-income fathers are out of work and struggling to make ends meet, Nepomnyaschy says. Although they may not provide financial assistance on a regular basis, they often are involved in their children's lives, support them in other ways, and give money to the mother when they can.

Researchers found that providing higher levels of informal support – more than $700 in two years – as opposed to giving nothing was associated with an increase in the cognitive skill levels of these young children.

When these fathers were mandated to provide support through the courts, however, children who received low levels of formal support, below $1,800 over two years, exhibited more aggressive behaviors than children the same age who were not getting any formal support from their fathers.

"This is definitely a puzzling result that needs to be examined further," says Nepomnyaschy. "Maybe these fathers are violent, have problems with drugs, spank the children or have bad relationships with the mother. We don't have a definitive answer."

Researchers believe that low-income fathers and mothers may prefer informal support because, in many states, if the mother is receiving federal assistance like food stamps or welfare, the support check paid by the father – which is usually minimal -- is kept by the state. Informal support, Nepomnyaschy says, often gives the father better leverage over visitation, child rearing and the ability to monitor how the money is spent.

"It is likely that unmarried mothers only go after formal support when their romantic relationship ends or when the father's informal support stops," says Nepomnyaschy.

She believes that more research is needed to determine whether these findings hold up as children get older. "We may find that the importance of formal child support to a child's well-being increases in the long term," says Nepomnyaschy. "But it is important to look at how we incentivize these fathers to get involved in ways other than just providing formal support when these children are still young."

Source: Rutgers University