Marriage Has Changed, but Is That Good for Children?

Alas, Norval Glenn is correct that our debate thus far has contained some gratuitous “slams.” Still, I’m not as sanguine as he is that our disagreements are illusory. True, we all agree that marriage has become a locus for self-fulfillment. We also all agree that women are no longer of necessity tied down to what Coontz calls “the gender regime” or what Stevenson and Wolfers describe as specialized labor.

No, our disagreement is not whether marriage has changed, but whether that change is worth critiquing. Stevenson and Wolfers say the shift to “hedonic marriage” is a common sense response to economic and social transformation. I would agree again — if, as they do, I were to limit my discussion to adults. But once we talk about the children that continue to appear in the vast majority of marriages the answer is rather different. The new marriage regime – I’m going to reject the term “hedonic marriage” for reasons that will become apparent – has not been so great for kids. (I won’t rehearse all of the research, which is undoubtedly familiar to my interlocutors, but the interested reader can find a good summary of the state of knowledge in the Fall 2005 issue of The Future of Children.) We can argue whether the downside for children is big enough to merit our concern, whether a (putative) increase in adult happiness is worth the price of some decline in child wellbeing, whether, as Coontz tackily insinuates, grappling with the issue is tantamount to joining the religious right, (in addition to even shabbier speculation about my personal motives), but what is inarguable is that the new marriage regime has had a real downside for children.

Stevenson and Wolfers simply do not address this issue perhaps because they share with Coontz the assumption that tying children to their parents is not, and has never been, a defining purpose of marriage. In fact, they seem to imply that viewing marriage this way is “political” (though it’s hard to tell, since they respond to a caricature of a “family values” argument rather than the one I actually made.) In their analysis, childrearing was one of many functions of marriage, no more or less significant than sewing clothes or baking bread. Once the market could provide meals and childcare, marriage no longer required domestic specialists and could become defined by mutual pleasure-seeking.

The most curious thing about this (political?) description is how little it corresponds to the actual experience of contemporary middle-class couples. Stevenson and Wolfers tell us that marriage is no longer child-centric, yet with their tutors, soccer leagues, 5 a.m. hockey practice, and overall helicoptering, this is probably the most child-focused generation in human history. Nor is there anything particularly hedonistic about their obsession; Kahneman and Krueger’s work suggests that people do not particularly enjoy time spent with their children.

No, what’s driving this mania should be obvious to economists above all: parents are preparing their kids for a highly competitive, globalized economy. Stevenson and Wolfers’ economic model can make sense of a “household service” like “childcare” but cannot come to grips with what social scientists, when they thought about such things, used to call socialization. Parents do not simply “provide childcare;” they shape children to become spouses, parents, citizens, and workers adapted to their specific cultural and economic world. Stevenson and Wolfers say that “marriage has historically been the product of the economic environment of the time.” This is true as far as it goes. But by socializing children to be self-sufficient, entrepreneurial, flexible workers as they are doing so intensively today, parents are also creating that economic environment. Imagine, for a moment, that more of today’s parents disdained academic achievement and taught their kids, say, to raise goats rather than chauffeuring them to computer classes and SAT tutors. How long would the very economic conditions that make “hedonic marriage” possible last?

And this takes us back to the marriage gap. Coontz asserts, and I suspect Stevenson and Wolfers would agree, that the gap is a “reflection, not a cause of class divide.” It’s impossible to do justice to this debate in the space we have here. But a few points: Robert Lerman’s research comparing low-income married and unmarried couples raises important counter evidence for this belief. And Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods shows the profound differences between middle-class couples and low-income single-parent families in their approach to their children’s overall development. We could chalk this up to poverty, but then how do we explain that middle class kids’ achievement is also compromised by growing up in a single parent family? (Stevenson and Wolfers might want to repeat Cornell’s Jennifer Gerner’s experiment and ask how many of their students were raised by their married parents. Her answer: 90%) Marriage is not simply an economic arrangement nor is it only an arena for companionship; it carries with it all sorts of tacit information about how to organize our lives, not least, how to raise children. That is why, as I said in my earlier post, the marriage gap means a human capital gap.

All of this points to the limitations of Stevenson and Wolfers’ marriage dualism. First we had productive marriage; now we have hedonic marriage. Cultural history reveals a far more complex evolution. Since the Enlightenment when Western thinkers introduced the idea of “companionate marriage,” Western marriage, particularly as imagined by the founders, has tried to balance the human desire for love and affection with respect for the discipline of an ancient and complex institution. The Great Disruption marked the moment when people decided they no longer needed to be part of any balancing act. As Coontz shows, marriage was to be simply about love. Stevenson and Wolfers describe the economic conditions behind this transformation, but they fail to see that the shift in marriage was not as adaptive to new realities as they would have us believe. Interestingly, survey data suggests while today’s young people want to find a “soulmate,” they’re more likely than their own boomer parents to believe that divorce should be harder to get and that parents should stay together for the sake of the children. Do they know something about marriage that the economists don’t?

Of course, many couples today either can’t, or choose not to, have children. To be blunt about it, they, and more generally hedonic marriages, are of minimal interest to society. On a societal level, it doesn’t matter whether people have someone to go to the movies with or even whether they have someone to love. But the state has always had, and will always have, a powerful interest when people have children together. For all its changes, marriage is still the only civil institution we have to organize their venture.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, briefly lays out the history of marriage to understand its present and future. “Today, when a marriage works,” Coontz argues, “it delivers more benefits to its members — adults and children — than ever before.” However, “the same things that have made so many modern marriages more intimate, fair, and protective have simultaneously made marriage itself more optional and more contingent on successful negotiation.” Instead of trying to resurrect a bygone ideal of marriage, those of us interested in encouraging healthy families now need to focus on what makes unmarried co-parents, single parents, cohabiting couples, as well as contemporary marriages successful on their own terms.

Response Essays

  • Kay S. Hymowitz, the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that Stephanie Coontz’s sketch of the state of marriage is badly incomplete, failing to acknowledge the class divide in marriage and childrearing. “This marriage gap,” she writes, “has profound implications for our political, social and economic prospects for one simple reason: overall, children do better in life if they are raised by their own married parents.” According to Hymowitz, “The de-linking of marriage and childrearing is a particular dilemma in the Unites States … [W]hat you have is a recipe for entrenched, trans-generational poverty, inequality, racial disparities …, reduced social and economic mobility, and — libertarians take note! — demands for government taxes to fund programs to correct the mess.”

  • Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the Univesity of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “re-frame Coontz’s careful history of the family in the language of economics,” exploring the economic forces underlying changes in marriage. Modern marriage, Stevenson and Wolfers argue, is marked by “a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption.” Modern marriage, which they call “hedonic marriage,” is more centered on love and companionship. Marriage as such isn’t doomed, they claim, but “marriage in which one person specializes in the home while the other person specializes in the market is indeed doomed,” especially as women’s educational levels begin to surpass men’s. Attempts to “re-regulate” the family to fit a classic ideal, they argue “may actually be a force undermining the dynamic institution that is the modern U.S. family.”

  • In his reply, University of Texas sociologist Norval D. Glenn, identifies Stephanie Coontz as a member of the “family-change-is-irreversible school of thought,” which he says “includes the view that attempts to retard, stop, or reverse any major aspect of recent family change are futile and thus are at best a waste of effort and at worst downright harmful…” But, Glenn asks, don’t liberals generally think policy can mitigate the consequences of economic change? Moreover, is anyone really asking to return to some Golden Age of marriage? There is evidence, Glenn submits, that marriage trends will further improve and that policy interventions, like marriage education, can help.