Parents with a child.

Well-loved: isn't that what matters? Photo: iStock

Are kids better off brought up by married parents?

There will soon be more ‘bastards’ in the United Kingdom than children born in wedlock.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics reported in London’s Telegraph newspaper show 47.5 per cent children born last year had unwed mothers compared to 25 per cent in 1988 and just 11 per cent in 1979.

If the trend continues at the current rate, the majority of children will be born to parents who are not married by 2016.

Given the newspaper’s ‘Torygraph’ moniker, it’s perhaps unsurprising the extent to which the article plays up fears from conservative MPs and experts with classic "we’ll all be rooned" aplomb.

Warnings about the negative impact this trend will have on children, and society at large come thick and heavy.

Noted traditionalist Tim Loughton, the former Children's minister, is quoted beseeching the government to do something, anything, including introducing tax breaks for married couples, to help stop the decline in births to married parents.

"If people are prepared to make a public declaration to each other in front of their friends and family they are more likely to stay together,” Mr Loughton says.

“Without marriage people drift in and out of relationships very easily.”

Mr Loughton is also married with children, firmly believes marriage is a religious institution that should remain between one man and one woman, and voted against the first reading of the same sex couples Bill that would permit homosexual matrimony in England and Wales. 

But what’s all this got to do with us?

Well, besides the parallels that run from Mr Loughton’s view all the way to heart of conservatism in Australia, there’s also the fact of a similar statistical trend present in our own census data.

According to the Bureau of Statistics, 14.7 per cent of all Australian births in 1983 were ex-nuptial, compared to 24 per cent a decade later and 34 per cent at last count in 2011.

So parity looks possible within the next couple of decades at least.

Will we all be rooned?

In 2011, very many screamy headlines were prompted by a report from the Australian Institute of Family Studies that found marriage had a positive effect on a child's learning and development.

This was because married couples tended to be better educated, more likely to be employed and have a better financial base, it said.

Supporters of good old fashioned Christian family structures latched onto the document as proof their campaigns against The Gays were endorsed by a force beyond the Almighty.

Curiously, the report was also used to carry on the fight against same-sex marriage, even though it apparently supported the idea that two loving, legally committed parents were better than one.

Equally as amusing is the ease with which we might take a block of numbers, add some words, and draw a simple conclusion, like "all kids born to married parents are better off".

Mindful of that charming old adage about lies, damned lies and statistics, I might suggest that there’s always more to a story than meets the eye.

Consider the kids born out of wedlock scenario. The census data only captures the marital status of a baby’s mother at the time of birth – it says nothing of whether mum was engaged, or de facto, or widowed, or carrying the child as a surrogate.

Similarly, the line above which shows the number of nuptial births has no information about whether the marriage is a happy one or a forced one; whether the baby was born to a married mother out of love or out of rape; and so on.

Of course, this is where qualitative study comes in. This is where we need the kind of research that looks beyond the numbers to try and find the truth. At this juncture, I might raise a recent report from the official journal of the American Academy of Paediatrics entitled Marriage and the Well-Being of Children.

“Importantly, we affirm the state’s vital role in promoting children’s well-being,” the abstract states.

“We question, however, the approach of delegitimising certain relationships as a means to that end. Instead, we argue, the state should encourage and support individuals who want to care for children, presume that any couple or individual is capable of adequate child-rearing, and ensure that all adults who are raising children (whether married or not) have the material resources and support necessary to be good parents.

“Such a policy would (1) set a reasonable minimal threshold for state recognition, (2) be vigilant in identifying cases falling below this threshold, and then (3) either assist or disqualify underperforming arrangements.

“It would also, appropriately, decouple arguments about legitimate and illegitimate types of relationships from arguments about what is best for children.”

I couldn’t agree more. How about you?

Do you think a decline in marriage rates is doing our children wrong? Or do you think children can be brought up fine as well-loved little bastards.

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