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In a world of family change, how are children faring?

A new report provides a unique global picture of family factors affecting child well-being.
Laura Lippman | 19 April 2014



Families around the world are changing dramatically. The newly released World Family Map 2014 from the US research centre Child Trends provides an evidence base for strategies to improve child wellbeing. In this Q&A with MercatorNet the project's co-director Laura Lippman notes some of the major findings.

What is the aim of this annual report on families around the world?

The aim of the report is to monitor key indicators of family well-being, and to provide an in depth analysis of how family characteristics relate to child well-being outcomes. Previous studies focus on either rich or poor countries, yet we have gathered data to investigate trends in all regions of the world.  Families are changing dramatically, and we are interested in how those changes are affecting child well-being.

What definition of "family" does it use? 

The first indicator on living arrangements shows how diverse families are. It shows the percentage of children ages 0-17 living with two, one, or no parents as well as those living with extended family members and how that percentage varies by region and by countries within region. The diversity of families is an important take away from the study.  Countries use different definitions of families in their censuses, but we have calculated the percentage of children in each type of living arrangement consistently across countries.

"The diversity of  families
is an important take-away
from the study."

Are most children still raised by their own two parents? Are there countries where that is not the case?

Yes, the majority of children in every country live with two parents, with the sole exception of South Africa, where a higher percentage of children live with one parent.

The data do not allow us to distinguish between biological, step, adoptive, or same sex parents, so the parents may be of any of these types.

Single parenthood is on the increase -- where is it most common? Are there any surprises in this pattern? Have you any theories why it would be so?

There are different reasons for this increase for each region.

Single parenthood is most common in South Africa, where 43 percent of children live in single parent families, and in several other Sub-Saharan African countries, such as Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda.  Here is a section of a background paper we wrote for this study on the rise of single parenthood in Africa:

Single-parenthood is another form of living arrangement taking hold across Africa. As increasing numbers of women have joined the labour force, single female-headed households have become more common. The driving forces for women’s increased participation in the labour market have been twofold. First, increased desire to work and increase the family’s well being, a motivation largely facilitated by increased female education. Second, and much more prevalent, has been the need for women to work for family subsistence- a need driven by poor returns of male employment. The increase in single-parent homes can also be partially explained by a trend by young African men and women postponing or delaying their first marriage while becoming sexually active outside marriage, especially in urban areas and among educated youth. An emerging trend has been women’s postponement of marriage in order to have greater control over reproduction.

Studies in most African cities find that single-parent female headed households are over-represented among the poor. Single-parent families, especially female-headed households, are especially high in South Africa as a legacy of the apartheid policy. Apartheid policies resulted in a high number of pregnancies outside marriage and divorce.  As part of the coping mechanism of single-parent households in Africa, poor single-parents have increasingly taken their children to live with their grandparents, a practice widely documented in South Africa.  In addition, the HIV-AIDS epidemic has taken its toll on parents, so rates of both single and no-parent families are higher in S. Africa than elsewhere.

The United States, New Zealand, and the UK have relatively high rates of single parenthood among English-speaking countries; and some contributing factors are higher rates of non-marital fertility and voluntary single parenthood, higher rates of cohabiting relations (which tend to be less stable than marriage), and higher rates of divorce resulting in higher rates of single parenthood.

Columbia, Nicaragua, and Chile have relatively high rates among Spanish-speaking countries. High rates of single parenthood in Latin America are related to increasing proportions of women entering the labour force and choosing not to marry;high rates of non-marital fertility, and higher rates of consensual union dissolution (which tend to be less stable than marriage). Historical and cultural factors can help explain why consensual unions are particularly common in Central America and the Caribbean.One of our interesting findings is how single motherhood is often more common among better-educated and wealthier mothers in lower income countries.

"Children of mothers who have divorced
or dissolved a cohabiting partnership,
been widowed, and repartnered in Africa,
Asia, and Central/South America
are 20 to 43 percent more likely to die
than children in stable families."


You have a special focus this year on the relationship between family instability and childhood health in the developing world. What are your findings here? What lessons do they have for the rest of the world?

The essay measures union instability and three child health outcomes:  diarrhoea, stunting, and child mortality.  We find that in Asia, Central/South America and the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa, children raised by mothers who have experienced union instability are more likely to have health problems, especially diarrhoea and to die, than children raised by a mother who has remained in her first union. In Africa and Asia, for instance, recent diarrhoea was 16 percent and 35 percent more common, respectively, among children of repartnered mothers than among children born to mothers continuously in their first union. Children of mothers who have divorced or dissolved a cohabiting partnership, been widowed, and repartnered in Africa, Asia, and Central/South America are 20 to 43 percent more likely to die than children in stable families.

Lessons for the rest of the world include alleviating the stressors among families going through union instability to enable mothers to provide consistent, warm, and attentive care to their children.

Marriage rates are declining worldwide but remain high in Asia and the Middle East. How does this affect the number of children people in different regions have?

The link between marriage and childbearing is weakening in many regions of the world.  The highest fertility in the world is in Africa, but this region also has very high rates of non-marital fertility (see table 1 and figure 5 of the report). While Asia and the Middle East have high marriage rates and almost nonexistent non-marital fertility (except in the Philippines), fertility is quite low in Asia and moderate in the Middle East. 

Does the data you used support the claim that children are most likely to flourish when raised by their married mother and father?

No. We looked at the relationship between union stability and child health in the essay, and it was whether the union, whether a marital or cohabiting union, was stable that mattered. We did not test differences based upon the marital status of the parents in the essay. In addition, figure 13 and figure 14 show a range of opinion around the world on single parenthood and whether a child needs both a father and mother to grow up happily.

Is there any evidence of a link between child poverty and family structure?

There is much evidence in mostly western studies about how child poverty is more common among single parent families. However, in this study we find that in low-income countries, single parenthood is more common among more highly educated and wealthier mothers.

"The essay points to the  need
to provide support  for 
families going through
union instability..."

Of course, one has to measure happiness. Are most parents satisfied with their lot? Do teenagers talk to their parents?

We only have data for a few countries on family satisfaction, showing a large range, with satisfaction lowest in Russia and highest in Chile (see figure 10 on page 36).

There will be new data released soon to give us a better picture.

Teenagers do talk to their parents…from 39% (Macao) to 92% (Germany) percent of them spend time talking to their parents every day or almost every day among the countries studied.

What recommendations does the report make?

The indicators in the first section of the report have been chosen because of their known relationships to positive child outcomes. So , reducing child poverty and undernourishment, increasing levels of parental education and employment, increasing public spending on family benefits, encouraging and teaching parents to reduce conflict and increase parent-child communication and family time together such as during family meals, all have benefits for child outcomes.  As noted above, the essay points to the need to provide support for families going through union instability to alleviate stress and allow the parents to focus on the needs of their children.

Laura Lippman is the co-director of the World Family Map and senior program director for education at Child Trends.

This article is published by Laura Lippman and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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