The Changing Contexts of Parenting in the United States

Larry Bumpass, PhD
N.B Ryder Professor of Sociology
University of Wisconsin-Madison

My starting point is that the family is a major factor in the well-being of adults, children, and society. This chapter brings a sociological perspective to the increasing instability in the lives of children in the United States. I will emphasize the social context in which parenting interactions and child development take place. That social context structures the decisions we make as individual parents.

I will describe the nature and strength of the social developments that affect the stability of children's family lives. Then I will summarize my conclusions about changes in family structures. First these changes are anchored in the social systems and economies of Western industrial societies reaching back into the last century. Second, these changes are influenced by feedback loops between the behaviors of parents.

Decreasing Stability in the Lives of Children

While it is a major factor in the well-being of both adults and children, the stability of family life is clearly decreasing. Single parents and multiple families during childhood are inescapable facts of American life. One half of all children will spend some time in a single parent family.

There is an array of correlated outcomes from the resulting parent-child interactions: psychological effects on parents and children, educational attainment of parents and children, teen sex, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and unmarried childbearing, all of which the literature associates with family structure. It is a complicated task for scientists to sort out the causal factors in this area. Certainly income plays an important mediating role, especially in educational attainment.

From 1960 to 1992 the proportion of children in single parent families more than doubled among whites and blacks. Of particular interest from a policy perspective is that the level for whites is now at the level it was for blacks at about the time that Patrick Moynihan was writing about the instability of families among black children. We are on a trajectory in which movement in and out of single parent status is likely to continue.

Concern for the future productivity of the economy is dire indeed when a quarter of all children are spending at least part of their childhood in poverty. This has serious implications for investments in children now and the nature of the labor force in the next generation. Conservatives and liberals ought to be able to reach common ground over this. I emphasize parenthetically that much of the research in this area focuses on the false dichotomy of being "in poverty" or "out of poverty." Economic stress is a variable that extends well across the income continuum. A sharp drop in income for a family following divorce may be above the poverty line and still have drastic consequences in stress on the family and the lives of the children involved.

With the exception of orphanhood, children's family experiences now result from decisions made by parents. How has this happened to us? Do we really value stable relationships and parenting?

The Sociological Context of Family Change

The sociological evidence for the process of change in families grows out of European as well as American data. The underlying dynamics are the atomizing effects of the culture of individualism on the one hand and of the market economy on the other. In that context relative value and revealed preferences actually determine the behavior of individual parents.

Individualism and the Market Economy

The family changes occurring in the Western world, I believe, are the result of the interplay between individualism and market economies. They are not the consequences of policies, such as welfare or no-fault divorce or even the increased employment of women.

The seeds of individualism were brought to America from Europe, where individualism plays an important role in family change as well. Individualism creates a climate in which responsibility to others and the attractiveness of childrearing are diminished. These changes are increasingly being shared with Eastern Asian societies. I hear my Japanese colleagues bemoan the increase in individualism among the young people in the Confucian context of duty to others. Their individualism grows out of the young peoples' interface with the market economy and their ability to produce and to consume for themselves. I believe that these changes are due to the increasing legitimacy of self-interest as a criterion for decisions as opposed to the interests of a larger collectivity. This need not be interpreted in the narrowest sense of selfishness but rather in the context of competing values, such as personal freedom, development, and empowerment values that we hold as important as our family roles.

The needs of our market economy define individual as producers. As a result occupational roles take priority over family roles. We see the consequences of this priority. The father who works extra hours at the office, rather than the one who knocks off at four to take his boy to softball practice, is the one who will get the pay raise the next time around. There is a symbiosis between our market economy's need for us to behave as if we were not tied in obligatory ways to others and our cultural emphasis on individualism.

Relative Value and Revealed Preferences

Here the perspectives of relative value and revealed preferences are helpful. Revealed preferences is a term from the economists for which there are fancy equations which basically mean "actions speak louder than words." If we were interested in whether Americans preferred to invest in home remodeling over taking vacations, holding prices constant, we would quite simple look at whether over time they invested more of their available resources in home remodeling than in vacations. Simple enough, and it is that perspective that I bring to much of the analysis that I am doing here.

How can it then be that we as Americans truly value family relationships and yet act to the contrary? The notion of relative value, offers real insight from at least some economists' perspectives on these matters. We can value something very much. We can even value it more than we used to and still value it less relative to some other competing good, if our value on that competing good increased more rapidly.

This is where the emphasis on the consumption need comes in. Young people "can't afford" to marry these days. Does that mean that their life styles would be worse than they were in the 1950s if they were to marry? No. It means that they think that they need more now than then they did then in order to marry.

The values of independence and the realization of individual goals and self-definition are relevant as well. It is in respect to these things that parenting roles are becoming less important, even while their importance is maintained.

A consequence of these competing values noted by many European as well as American observers is the decreased willingness to make long-term commitments. An intergenerational example is that children from nonintact families are less likely to form and maintain intact families of their own. This decreased willingness to make long-term commitments has historical and economic roots that go much deeper than one's own family context. The values of personal freedom, development, and empowerment reduce the relative attractiveness of the obligatory nature of family roles.

Feedback Loops

From the sociologist's viewpoint divorce, cohabitation, the separation of sexual activity from marriage, single parenthood by choice, and delayed marriage have interacted to increase the instability of family life for children.


The trend in divorce toward which half of all first marriages will end in divorce is part of a long-standing accelerating curve that reaches well back into the last century --- to about 1835. There are fluctuations around this trend line, but we have been at a plateau for about the last twenty years.

Now one-third of the children of married parents will see their parents' marriage disrupted. While the current levels of divorce are a continuation of the long-term trend, they also signal a turning point in the economic terms of a contract of marriage until death. That contract has become a very weak guarantee both of a stable economic environment for women and of a stable childhood environment for children.

Separation of Sexual Activity and Marriage

Unmarried sex probably was accelerated by the availability of oral contraceptives in the 1960s. The point here is that unmarried sex is simply a part of our culture. The percentage of metropolitan males between the ages of 17 and 19 who had ever had sex increased from 66% in 1979 to 76% in 1988 and decreased to 68% in 1995.1 This is affected by a number of variables so that things like parental education, family status matter, but those effects are largely matters of timing whether teen sex begins at 14, 15, or 16 rather than at later times when developmental readiness may be more appropriate. The significance of marriage for sex is disappearing, although male adolescents are more likely now than in previous years to say that marriage and support of the child is their preferred solution to nonmarital pregnancy.1

The changes in age of marriages that are occurring in our society and the increasing proportion of the population who are unmarried and sexually active are having a profound affect on our culture and on the media. The marketplace is addressing a population that is unmarried and sexually active. This increased exposure time, earlier sexual activity, and later ages of marriage are resulting in increasing numbers of women who are having unintended pregnancies while they are unmarried. Of all pregnancies in 1987, about 29% were unintended and ended in abortion; 28% were unintended and resulted in a birth; and only 43% of all pregnancies were intended pregnancies that resulted in births.

Now among the unmarried population 80% of all pregnancies are unintended. Half of the pregnancies to unmarried women end in abortion, counting for 80% of our abortions each year. Yet two-thirds of the births that occur to unmarried women are the result of unintended pregnancy. I emphasize this because unintended pregnancy is the primary route by which these single parent families are created. This conclusion draws us into a different policy arena than is usually thought about in terms of affecting children's lives. Reducing the levels of unintended pregnancy among unmarried women would essentially restructure the family context of children.

Marriage no longer signifies a solid commitment to a lifetime relationship. It no longer signifies the point at which sexual activity is expected to begin. It no longer clearly delimits the necessary context for childbirth. It no longer signifies that a couple is likely to take up joint housekeeping. Cohabitation has evolved from a strongly disapproved behavior to the majority behavior in our society. One used to refer to cohabitation as "shacking up" or "living in sin." Now it has become a common pattern. If we live in a society in which we take for granted that young people are sexually active, then the stigma associated with unmarried childbearing or cohabitation is gone.


One of the most important factors in the present plateau of divorce is cohabitation, which is pruning off a fair number of divorces that would have occurred. My colleague, sociologist James Sweet, calls these "premarital divorces."

There is no question that the high levels of cohabitation are playing a role in the plateau in the divorce rate. Writers from the late 19th century bemoaned the increase in individualism and the decline in commitment to community obligations. Thus, single parents are not new. A qualitative change did occur sometime in the 1960s, however. Single parent families over the latter part of the last century and the first part of this century were largely the consequence of orphanhood. Somewhere in the 1960s the majority of single parent families followed divorce. Parental choice became the primary mechanism by which single parent families were formed and public attitudes accommodated that choice. In the early 1960s, 80% of the public agreed that "a couple should stay together." By the 1980s agreement with that statement dropped to 50%. A decreased sense that parents were obliged to stay together for the sake of the children occurred.

In 1995 half of the women in their thirties had lived in a cohabiting relationship. The proportion of 40-44 year olds who ever lived in a cohabiting relationship increased by over one-third from 1987 as younger cohorts aged into this category. What accounts for this rapid change? It is because of a demographic process called cohort succession or demographic metabolism. As younger generations with high levels of cohabitation grow older, they carry their experience with them in to the next age category. We are facing a day, I would guess, when as high as 60% of 65 year olds will have lived in a cohabiting relationship at some time in their lives.

Single Parenthood by Choice

The significance of marriage as a lifetime contract has declined. Single parenthood by choice has become common. And this, I think, is one of the important feedback loops. With the high levels of divorce in the late 1960s, the increasing numbers of single parent families, and the changes in public attitudes about a couple staying together, single parenthood in itself no longer is stigmatizing. So given that change, a young woman who finds herself pregnant and does not really want to marry the father is in a different environment.

One-half of all single parent families now begin by an unmarried birth. One-third of all children in the United States are now born to an unmarried mother. One-half are second or higher order births. These are not just first births and certainly not just teen births. Only a third of unmarried childbearing occurs to teens; the majority occur later in life.

This trend toward unmarried childbearing in the United States has not occurred primarily among minorities and occurs at all ages. Among white women in the United States at virtually every age, there has been an increase in the rate of unmarried childbearing. There are comparable trends in Europe and Canada, in Australia and New Zealand, and most obviously in Scandinavia. The significance of marriage for childbearing has clearly declined. The roots are in delayed marriage and in the separation of sex from marriage.

Delayed Marriage

Delayed marriage plays three roles in this process. First, much of the increase in unmarried childbearing has been in the demise of "shotgun" marriages. That is to say pregnancies before marriage followed by a hasty marriage to the father of the child have essentially disappeared. In the past sex was much more likely to occur in a committed relationship that could plausibly result in marriage. As sex is occurring in more casual relationships, the decision to marry the father is not occurring as frequently.

Second, there are dramatic declines in marriage following unmarried births beyond the "shotgun" marriage stage. I have not yet assimilated the profound implications of this change. The cumulative proportion of women who have married within a given number of years after the birth of a child before marrying has decreased dramatically. In the 1960s 65 % of white women married five to ten years after giving birth. That now has dropped to about 38% married after 5 years. It is a little higher after 10 years. About half of women who have a child out of wedlock are simply not marrying for the remainder of their reproductive careers. Some related work we are doing on sterilization is corroborating this fact; there are increasing levels of sterilization among the never married because they have had all of the children they want.

Finally, delay in marriage produces an increased duration of exposure to risk of pregnancy. The proportion of women who are married in their late twenties has more than doubled oven the last couple of decades. So there is increased exposure time when one is unmarried and sexually active. That is a product not only of delayed marriage but of earlier ages of first sexual experiences.

Impact on Children

Let us review how all of this impacts the lives of children. There is a complex set of relationships between cohabitation and the family trends I have been reviewing. One-third of all births in the U.S. are to unmarried mothers. We think of those births as creating single parent families. It turns out that 40% of the births to unmarried mothers occur in two parent families that simply aren't married. They are cohabiting. So that cohabitation overlays this unmarried childbearing process in a complex way.

Further the increases in unmarried childbearing over the last decade occurred almost completely in cohabiting two-parent families. Almost half of children will spend some time in a cohabiting family, but the probability that the parents in that family will marry each other in the 1980s was 57%; now it has declined to 44%. The stability of children's relationships is declining in ways that we don't see in marriage statistics.

About half of all children will spend time in a single parent family. The probability that a child will experience family disruption has increased because of the experience of living in cohabiting families. The proportion of children living in married families has declined and the proportion living in cohabiting families has increased. About a third of the time of children living outside of married families is spent in cohabiting families moving in and out of different family arrangements.

The forces affecting family transitions do not stop at the boundaries of married families. They affect two parent families in terms of stepfamilies, half-siblings and the like. One of the most dramatic trends is the increase in the employment of mothers of infants, which is now over 50%. This in spite of the enormous difficulties of arranging childcare for infants. I see this as driven heavily by market forces by economic need in the sense of the relative preference placed on competing values in our society for vocational over family priorities.

In 1994 two-thirds of the respondents under the age of thirty to the National Survey of Family Growth felt that unmarried sex, cohabitation, and unmarried births were socially acceptable. These attitudes are relevant to family structures. Unmarried sex is OK if a person is over 18 years of age. It's OK to cohabit. It's OK to have an unmarried birth. Issues that the older generation opposes strongly have little opposition among younger generations. The demographer sees that, as these folks grow older, we go more in the direction that we have been moving. There are strong currents against which one must swim if one wishes to increase the stability of families for children.


In our policies and in our own personal lives there is a very strong current that is increasing the instability of children's lives. It is possible to swim upstream against what we see to be out there, but only for those who feel we must do so and only for those who recognize the strength of the currents against which they must swim.

My view of the dynamic rooted in competitive market economies makes it seem impossible to turn back the clock. Rather we must find creative ways to invest in children more heavily in the new family contexts. Perhaps the Scandinavian countries have led the way, just as they led the way in creating the family changes we have been describing. In Norway a mother receives full-time pay for a year to parent her infant; in Sweden she receives 80%. Can we conceive of valuing parenting as much as market roles so that we would actually pay parents to carry out that role?

Another demographic trend that bears watching is the rapidly growing Hispanic population in America. They bring a cultural bias toward marriage and two-parent families.2 The "marriage movement" also has gained momentum, as exemplified by "marriage saver" courses and legislation in Florida requiring that all high-schoolers be taught marital and relationship skills.3

By shifting priorities in adult decision-making toward the interests of children and by reducing unintended pregnancies among unmarried women, we could make a real difference in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.


1 Ku, L., Sonenstein, F.L., Lindberg, L.D., Bradner, C. H., Boggess, S., & Pleck, J.H (1998) Understanding changes in young metropolitan men's sexual activity: 1979-1995. Family Planning Perspectives 30 (6): 256-262.

2 Azulic, Tad (1999) The fastest growing minority in America. Parade Magazine January 3, pp. 3-7.

3 Peterson, K. (1998) Family behavior: Two trends to watch. USA Today December 29, p. 6D.

Copyright © 1999 Larry Bumpass.

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