Washington Times

June 27, 2001

Parents' 'other' significant

Cheryl Wetzstein
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

For some teens whose parents divorce, having a parent move out isn't the worst thing that happens. Having Mom's new boyfriend move in is.

My parents have been separated since Feb. 5, and since then I have stayed with my mom," said Jenny, 14, who lives in North Carolina.

Now me, my mom and her boyfriend are living in the same house. It's strange. My parents haven't been separated long -- today is June 20 --but I am already living with someone else," said Jenny, who shared her story through Teen.com, an Internet site.

My boyfriend's parents both live with their boyfriend/girlfriend," said another teen named Ashley. "His parents pay more attention to their partner than to the kids and his mom is constantly kicking her boyfriend out and the kids have to watch them fight and sometimes he beats her up. ... It's bad and they all hate it."

Cohabiting is a small but growing way of life in America. Recent Census Bureau data show that the number of unmarried couple households rose from 1.3 percent to 1.9 percent between 1990 and 2000.

During that time period, the actual number of households grew by 72 percent, from 3.18 million to 5.47 million.

About a third of cohabiting couples have children, mostly from previous relationships.

Not much research has been conducted on how children -- especially teens -- fare in cohabiting households, but what little is known isn't heartening.

Cohabiting appears to be the worst type of household for white and Hispanic teens, and a virtual tie for worst for black teens (along with single-mother households), according to a recent study published by the Urban Institute.

The researchers -- Gregory Acs, Sandi Nelson and Rebecca L. Clark -- knew from previous research that teens did best when they lived with their married biological parents. But they wondered what would be the next best arrangement. Being in a stepfamily? Living with a single parent? Or living with a mother and her boyfriend?

The researchers looked at data from the Urban Institute's 1997 National Survey of America's Families, which asked questions of 44,000 households.

They focused on teens, ages 12 to 17, their race and household type. They also looked at the teens' emotional and behavioral well-being, their connectedness and enthusiasm for school, and whether they had been suspended or expelled.

The researchers found that for white and Hispanic teens, living with a cohabiting mother was the most problematic.

White and Hispanic teens who lived in cohabiting homes "scored the worst on two out of three outcomes," Mr. Acs said. For them, "having Mom's boyfriend around -- who is not your father -- is not a good thing."

For black teens, living with either a cohabiting mother or a single mother raised the likelihood for emotional problems and poor school attachment. But living with a cohabiting mother was much more strongly linked to school suspensions or expulsions than living with a single mother, the data showed.

The Urban Institute researchers also looked at the theory that teens might do better if their single mothers married their live-in boyfriends, becoming stepfamilies instead of cohabitants.

The data, however, showed mixed results on this theory.

For white teens, living in a stepfamily was just as emotionally troublesome as it was with cohabiting or single parents. On the plus side, white teens in stepfamilies were much less likely to be suspended or expelled than if they were with cohabitants or single parents.

Hispanic teens improved on all three measures if they lived in a stepfamily compared with cohabitants or single parents.

Black teens saw the greatest benefit in a stepfamily -- their emotional health greatly improved and they were much less likely to be suspended or expelled.

An interesting element of the Urban Institute study is that, for white and Hispanic teens, single mothers are better than cohabiting mothers, said Pamela J. Smock, who studies cohabiting at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

This is striking because for so long, "single mothers have been the 'bad' category," she said.

Ms. Smock, who is a sociologist, also sees evidence that many more children are likely to experience cohabiting during their childhood.

By the late 1990s, 5 percent of all American children lived in cohabiting homes, she said. But over the next two decades, at least 40 percent of American children are likely to live in such arrangements.

Cohabiting is a rapidly expanding element of the culture, "and yet we don't seem to be focusing on what's happening to our children," said Janice Shaw Crouse, senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute's Center for Studies in Women's Issues.

Cohabiting relationships break up at roughly twice the rate of marriages, she said. "We don't yet know all the implications of having 'serial' dads in the home, but certainly it does something to a child's psyche when there is a succession of men and no steady male presence."

Cohabiting also can be bad for children since such relationships seem to be more prone to domestic violence and sexual abuse than intact families, she said.

There is so much in cohabitation that we don't know much about," said Theodora Ooms, who is developing a resource center on couples and marriage policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Successful cohabiting with children "may depend on the communication between parent and child," said Mrs. Ooms.

Children are likely to be worried about whether this person is going to be a new stepparent or not, and whether they can affect that, she said. Cohabiting also may provide a test of how well the children get along with a new partner, which could be good or bad, she said. "It gives the kids kind of control -- if I'm mean to him, he won't marry my mother.

The teens at Teen.com weren't all unhappy with their mothers' cohabiting.

Actually, because of her having a live-in boyfriend, that's how I met my stepdad, and that's how we got to know each other," said Jessica, a 15-year-old from California.

I just want her to be happy, and if having her man live with us makes her happy, then go for it," said 16-year-old Melyssa from Detroit.

Katie from Massachusetts had a different story.

My mom has had a few live-in boyfriends," the 17-year-old wrote. "With the first one, I hated it along with my sister and brothers. ... We finally got rid of him.

My mom's second live-in boyfriend was awful like the first, but after a while we got used to it. But he dumped her 'cause he couldn't deal with us.

My mom's single at the moment," Katie added, "so we don't have to deal with it right now."

Copyright © 2001 News World Communications, Inc.

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