Kids Need a Mom and a Dad – That’s What the Research Shows

Children do best when raised by their biological, married mother and father. It’s more than just an opinion: Decades of social research demonstrate this outcome.

There are few topics within the studies of social science that enjoy more numerous and diverse published documentation from the world’s leading scholars than how married mothers and fathers impact child well-being.

While no one, to our knowledge, has actually counted all the studies supporting the value of married mother-father families, there is a wealth of published academic research on the topic. Here is just a sampling of conclusions, by a variety of universally recognized scholars and child-advocacy organizations, about children’s need for a mother and a father:

  • In a joint report in late 2015 from Princeton University and the Brookings Institute, David Ribar, from the University of Melbourne, writes:

“Reams of social science and medical research convincingly show that children who are raised by their married, biological parents enjoy better physical, cognitive and emotional outcomes, on average, than children raised in other circumstances. …[R]esearchers have been able to make a strong case that marriage has causal impacts on outcomes such as children’s schooling, their social and emotional adjustment, and their employment, marriage and mental health as adults.”

  • A 2015 research survey traces the high-points of this body of literature from the early 1960s up to the present day, finding a continued increase in the knowledge that married mothers and fathers are a child’s most potent protection from poverty, abuse, school failure, criminal behavior and serious emotional problems. This author explains,

    “One of the most significant determinants, if not the most significant, of whether a man, woman or child live some large part or all of their lives in poverty, is the family form they grow up in and those they go on to form—or fail to form—in their adulthood.”

  • A 2013 journal article by scholars from Princeton, Cornell and UC Berkeley used advanced research designs to see if father absence really does have a causal rather than coincidental impact on child well-being. Reviewing 47 various studies on the topic, these scholars explain that “we find strong evidence that father absence negatively affects children’s social-emotional develop” and these affects stretch into later adolescence and beyond. They conclude, “The evidence is strongest and most consistent for outcomes such as high school graduation, children’s social-emotional adjustment, and adult mental health.”
  • The Report, “Why Marriage Matters, Third Edition: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences,” reported on the multiple benefits of marriage, including the advantages for children. A diverse team worked collectively on the report, including family scholars from U.C. Berkeley, Rutgers University and the Universities of Texas, Virginia, Minnesota, Chicago, Maryland and Washington. They found that children who lived with their own married parents, in general:
    • Live longer, healthier lives both physically and psychologically.
    • Do better in school.
    • Are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.
    • Are less likely to live in poverty.
    • Are less likely to be in trouble with the law.
    • Are less likely to drink or do drugs.
    • Are less likely to be violent or sexually active.
    • Are less likely to be victims of sexual or physical violence.
    • Are more likely to have a successful marriage when they are older.
  • A 2017 article reviewed a number of studies showing marital status is one of the most important factors determining whether women and children will spend any of their lives in poverty. It reports that,
    • Adjusting for family size, family income is 73 percent higher for married women compared to that of their unmarried peers.
    • Married men benefit from an average annual economic “marriage premium” of at least $15,900 per year compared to their unmarried peers.
    • This investigation also finds that the marriage premium is even more substantial for the most disadvantaged.

On this last point, it finds:

“For instance, black men enjoy a marriage premium of at least $12,500 in their individual income compared to their single peers. The advantages also apply, for the most part, to men and women who are less educated. For instance, married men with a high-school degree or less enjoy a marriage premium of at least $17,000 compared to their single peers.”

    • A 2010 article published in the Journal of Marriage and Family examined the research on this topic going back to 2000, finding,

      “Over the past decade, evidence on the benefits of marriage for the well-being of children has continued to mount. Children residing in two-biological-parent married families tend to enjoy better outcomes than do their counterparts raised in other family forms. …Children living with two biological married parents experience better educational, social, cognitive and behavioral outcomes than do other children on average.”  

    • James Q. Wilson, a professor at Harvard and U.C.LA, wrote about the importance of marriage. He explains the academic consensus:

      “Almost everyone—a few retrograde scholars excepted—agrees that children in mother-only homes suffer harmful consequences: the best studies show that these youngsters are more likely than those in two-parent families to be suspended from school, have emotional problems, become delinquent, suffer from abuse and take drugs.”

      Wilson continues,  

      “[T]he best studies, such as those by Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, show that low income can explain, at most, about half of the differences between single-parent and two-parent families. The rest of the difference is explained by a mother living without a husband.”

    • The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) is a more liberal-leaning child advocacy organization. In 2003, the group published a brief on family structure, asking the question, “Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? What Research Says About the Effects of Family Structure on Child Well-Being.” CLASP concluded:

    “Research indicates that, on average, children who grow up in families with both their biological parents in a low-conflict marriage are better off in a number of ways than children who grow up in single-, step- or cohabiting-parent households. Compared to children who are raised by their married parents, children in other family types are more likely to achieve lower levels of education, to become teen parents, and to experience health, behavior, and mental health problems. And children in single- and cohabiting-parent families are more likely to be poor.”

    • Another research organization that focuses on children, youth and their families is Child Trends. In a 2002 brief that reviewed the literature, they conclude:

      “[R]esearch clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes than do children in intact families headed by two biological parents. Parental divorce is also linked to a range of poorer academic and behavioral outcomes among children. There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents.”

    • Sociologist Paul Amato has researched and written for decades about how family structure affects children, In 2005 he writes,

      "Specifically, compared with children who grow up in stable, two-parent families, children born outside marriage reach adulthood with less education, earn less income, have lower occupational status, are more likely to be idle (that is, not employed and not in school), are more likely to have a non-marital birth (among daughters), have more troubled marriages, experience higher rates of divorce, and report more symptoms of depression.”

      He concludes,

      “Research clearly demonstrates that children growing up with two continuously married parents are less likely than other children to experience a wide range of cognitive, emotional, and social problems, not only during childhood, but also in adulthood."

    • Sara McLanahan of Princeton University, a leading scholar on how family form impacts child well-being, explains from her extensive investigations:

      “If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent family ideal. Such a design, in theory, would not only ensure that children had access to the time and money of two adults, it would provide a system of checks and balances that promote quality parenting. The fact that both adults have a biological connection to the child would increase the likelihood that the parents would identify with the child and be willing to sacrifice for that child and it would reduce the likelihood that either parent would abuse the child.”

      The researchers cited are careful in their conclusions to explain that growing up without a mother or father, or without both, does not doom a child to poor outcomes in life. But in general, children with a married mother and father have better outcomes.  

      The research is clear: If we are concerned about elevating the well-being and life opportunities for children, we must be concerned about the health and strength of the two-parent family, headed by a father and mother.  

      For more research and resources related to this topic:

    • More Research About Children’s Need for a Mother and Father
    • Teach Your Children About Marriage
    • Single/Blended Family Parenting
    • Strengthening Your Marriage
    This article was originally published in 2008 under the title “30 Years of Research: A Child Deserves a Mother and a Father.” It was updated to reflect current research confirming the importance of mothers and fathers to children.