What Kids Get from Parents: Packages of Parental Involvement across Complex Family Forms

Soc Serv Rev. 2013 Jun 1;87(2):213-249. doi: 10.1086/671015.


While demographers have continued to document the notable family changes that have occurred in recent decades, the nature of family functioning across diverse family forms is less well understood. In particular, we know little about the level and quality of parental investment that children receive across a range of contemporary family types. In this paper, we use data from a recent U.S. urban birth cohort to examine the 'package' of parental involvement that young children receive in two key domains across family types. We aggregate parent-child engagement across three potential parent(-figures)-biological mothers, biological fathers (resident or non-resident), and resident social fathers-and also assess the child's household income. We examine parental investments at child age 5 and changes in investments between child ages 1 and 5 by family structure categories. Overall, we find that children living with both of their married biological parents are advantaged with respect to both economic resources and parental engagement, while children living with single mothers-or their mother and a cohabiting social father-fare especially poorly in both domains; children in married social-father families receive higher overall levels of parental engagement than those in biological-father families but are much less economically advantaged. Our research sheds light on how changing family demography is related to parental investments in children, which may have implications for public policies designed to support disadvantaged families.