Issue 35 / 19 September 2011

THERE has been a lot of doom-saying lately about the state of the family and the damaging effects this can have on children.

A report this month by University of Sydney law professor Patrick Parkinson made front-page news around the country when it drew a link between the decline of traditional family structures and poorer outcomes for children.

The report, commissioned by the Australian Christian Lobby, paints a dramatic picture of a generation of children suffering increased rates of abuse, mental illness and self-harm.

“Governments, perhaps the community at large, tend to see social problems as being like spot fires, one here, one there, another in the distance”, Professor Parkinson writes. “Too rarely do we recognise the possibility that behind the visible spot fires, a major bush fire is burning.”

It’s powerful language that may or may not be warranted by the evidence.

Reliable long-term data on prevalence of mental illness in young people (as opposed to diagnosis rates) can, for example, be hard to find. And while most of the indicators cited in the report are on the rise, some — such as rates of binge drinking in under-18s — have been heading in the other direction.

When it comes to the causes of what he describes as the deteriorating wellbeing of children, Professor Parkinson acknowledges it would be “simplistic to posit just one or two explanations”, but the strategies he suggests to address the problem inevitably reflect those factors he sees as particularly important.

Given the evidence that children do less well when they have to contend with conflict at home, he wants to see increased support for parents across the various family structures we see in our community. It’s hard to argue with that.

But he also suggests establishing government-funded relationship programs for couples that would, among other things, “explore the benefits to the relationship of making the commitment of marriage”.

The rationale for this is that marriages are less likely to break down than de facto relationships, along with the suggestion that children do better across a range of indicators when their parents are married to each other.

Maybe they do, but that doesn’t in itself prove that the existence of the marriage certificate is responsible.

We are all free to hypothesise, but the myriad of potential confounders inherent in this kind of research make it very difficult to draw firm conclusions about causal relationships.

We really can’t know if encouraging couples to marry, rather than just live together, would make them more likely to stay together or to be better parents to their children. Perhaps, more importantly, I found myself becoming concerned as I read media coverage of the Parkinson report that we could be in danger of stigmatising families that don’t fit the traditional mould.

What impact does it have on step-parents, for example, when they are bombarded with messages about children living in blended families being at greater risk of abuse and other negative outcomes?

And, if we repeatedly say that children in less traditional families do badly at school, have poorer mental health and are more likely to become pregnant as teenagers, could we be in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I’m not suggesting we should censor the research or our discussion of it, but I do think we need to be careful that we are not sending a message to young people that some kinds of family are inherently inferior — and that those who are raised in them are likely to be damaged as a result.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 19 September 2011

One thought on “Jane McCredie: Is it all in the family?

  1. Chris R says:

    Tricky one! I haven’t kept up with the research but I’d be sceptical of the claim that “marriage” per se was causative! More likely a stable, long term, loving environment for kids is the key (which has traditionally involved a mother and a father in a marriage, but increasingly less so). I don’t think the mother or the father or the marriage are intrinsically important, but the love and the security and the stability is. Does the research control for these confounders?

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