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Online 'map' focuses on family well-being worldwide

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 5:51 p.m. MDT

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Children in two-parent families in middle- and higher-income countries around the world tend to have better educational outcomes than those living with only one parent or without a parent, according to a major new international report by Child Trends.

Child Trends teamed up with scholars and other experts to create a "World Family Map" tracking family well-being and noting how family structure, economic health and culture can strengthen or weaken family life. The first of what are expected to be annual reports contrasts what's going on in both high-income and low-income nations worldwide, looking at 45 countries.

The report, released today, looked at a range of countries, from the very poor to the wealthy. Besides considering income and education of both parents and children, it looked at such "family processes" as eating meals together, whether kids and parents discuss politics and attitudes toward working moms — most countries say working mothers can have "just as good relationships with their children as stay-at-home mothers can" — and attitudes about family in general.

Child Trends concluded children in two-parent homes in middle- and higher-income countries do better educationally based on several factors — the link between family makeup and a child's literacy, grade repetition, enrollment in school and whether the child was in an "expected grade" for his age.

But in lower-income countries, kids in single-parent families do as well or outperform those in two-parent families.

There are several potential explanations, according to Brad Wilcox, co-investigator and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, where he teaches sociology. It's possible that grandparents and aunts and uncles or other extended family step up and fill in gaps, he said. It's also possible that huge variations in school quality itself in different regions of the world account for differences that have greater impact on educational outcomes than can family configuration.

In India, for instance, a teacher may not even show up for school. The unexpected result may also reflect that in some parts of the world fathers are less invested in their children's educations than moms, who are more willing to spend money and care on them, he noted.

"Dads matter, but sometimes it's for good or ill," Wilcox said, citing the difference between dads who help with homework and support education and those in some countries where dads are a "practical and financial drain, diverting money" to their own interests.

Reading and promotion

The report found that kids in two-parent homes in the developed world excel in reading and are less likely to be held back a grade when they live with two parents. That's true in Australia, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Sweden and the United States. And it held true even after they controlled for parental education, employment and wealth.

Children who don't live with either parent tend to have the worst educational outcomes everywhere in the world, the report said.

Wilcox said that the benefits in the developed world stretch beyond the school years into adulthood, with improved job prospects and higher income for those raised in two-parent homes.

Worldwide, most children do live in two-parent families, the report said. "Although two-parent families are becoming less common, they still constitute a majority of families around the globe. Children are most likely to live in two-parent families in Asia and the Middle East and somewhat less likely to live in two-parent families in the Americas, Europe, Oceania and Sub-Saharan Africa. Extended families appear to be common in Asia, the Middle East, South America and Sub-Saharan Africa."

Pressure building

Still, family life is under tremendous pressure, particularly in higher-income countries, where fewer children are being raised in homes with two parents, compared to the past. Both fertility and marriage rates are falling.

"The irony comes in that it's precisely in countries where two-parent families are most valuable where that family structure is most vulnerable," said Wilcox. "In Europe, North America and Oceania, two-parent households deliver the greatest educational advantages, and it is precisely in those regions where we have seen some of the most dramatic declines in the two-parent, nuclear family."

He noted, as well, that those regions are less likely to have extended family around. "Part of the story is that when extended family is not on the scene much, that is when children need their parents more."

"As more children worldwide are growing up in challenging circumstances and as many governments around the world are reducing investments in families and children, it is critical to understand the strengths as well as the challenges facing families," said Laura Lippman, senior program director for education at Child Trends and co-investigator on the world mapping project, in a written statement accompanying the report. "When we look at families worldwide, we can identify ways that families support child health and youth development, as well as conditions that undercut positive development."

The report was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Focus Global and the Social Trends Institute, as well as co-sponsored by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, the University of Asia and the Pacific, the Universidad de la Sabana, the Universidad de los Andes, Universidad de Piura, the Netherlands Youth Institute and the Seoul National University. It can be found online at http://www.worldfamilymap.org/.

Attitudes about family

Most likely to accept voluntary single motherhood: Americas, Europe, Oceania Spain, 80 percent) Least likely: Asia, Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Jordan and Egypt, 2 percent

Most likely to believe working moms can have as good of relationships with kids as stay-at-home moms: Sweden, 84 percent Least likely: Jordan, 47 percent

Most likely to believe children flourish in a home with both mother and father: Egypt, 99 percent Least likely: Sweden, 47 percent

Adults that “completely trust” their families: Most likely: Jordan, at 97 percent Least likely: Netherlands, at 63 percent

Source: World Family Map 2013

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