How Children Shape Parents

How Children Shape Parents
Claire Hassler/Missourian via AP
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In an age of partisan polarization, any area of bipartisan agreement is a welcome respite. For many years, policymakers across the aisle have found common ground in an understanding that having two parents in a home is the best scenario for children. The data are unequivocal. Across a wide range of measures (financial, mental, physical, educational), kids do better when supported by two parents, ideally in the context of marriage.

But is there evidence to suggest that children and marriage can improve parental outcomes? A new paper by Maxim Massenkoff and Evan Rose from University of California – Berkeley studied birth, marriage, and arrest records for more than a million people in the state of Washington to determine, among other things, what effects childbirth and marriage have on an individual’s likelihood of committing crime. For both fathers and mothers, the results were stark: pregnancy led to significant decreases in crime (over 50 percent for women and 25 percent for men), while marriage was also associated with reductions in criminal activity. And while crime rates went back up slightly after birth and marriage, becoming a parent or getting married appears to make a sustained impact on criminal behavior.

Figure 1: Event study coefficients of monthly arrest rate around first birth, mothers (graph 1) and fathers (graph 2), respectively.

Family Formation and Crime

On the first question, the researchers found that pregnancy, not childbirth itself, appears to be the driver behind a rapid decline in criminal activity. This effect was particularly pronounced among unmarried men and women, both of whom experience sharp declines in criminal activity during the pregnancy period that continues post-partum. Pregnancy and the impending responsibility of caring for a child, it seems, provides an incentive for mothers and fathers to “clean up their act” in preparation for a life transition.

While married mothers and fathers also see a decline in criminal activity during pregnancy, the benefits are less drastic, and they tend to return to pre-pregnancy levels of offending after about three years. The paper’s other key finding may help to explain this phenomenon. Married individuals are considerably less likely to commit crime than their unmarried counterparts. In fact, the greatest decrease (nearly 50 percent) in criminal activity among married individuals comes in the months leading up to marriage, and this lower rate sustains throughout the first years of their marriage. It is likely, then, that married individuals have already taken significant steps to desist from crime before deciding to have children, potentially diminishing the crime-reducing impact of a pregnancy in their lives.

Figure 2: Event study coefficients of arrests around marriage, mothers (graph 1) and fathers (graph 2), respectively.

Family Formation and Crime

One sobering caveat should be mentioned: Arrests for domestic violence increase substantially in the months immediately after childbirth and marriage, particularly for fathers with high rates of drug offenses and those who divorce within 5 years of the birth of a child.

Taken together, these findings provide fresh insight into the impact of children and marriage on parental behavior, as well as a note of caution. Family formation, it appears, can significantly reduce the propensity of men and women to commit crimes. Further, we know that stable, two-parent families also reduce negative outcomes for children including the likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system. Healthy families, then, are an inter-generational win-win, reducing crime now and later. At the same time, the data also reinforce the point that not all relationships are created equal and some of them lead to domestic abuse. From a policy standpoint, the emphasis should be on supporting healthy marriages and relationships not marriages for their own sake.

Clearly, core elements of these findings are not in the purview of government. Individuals will make their own choices in intimate relationships, marriage, and children. Community and faith-based leaders can support these couples by providing information and training related to the benefits of family and the communication, financial management, and relationship skills needed to sustain healthy marriages. New findings around the positive effects of family and relationship programming should also be considered, with programs expanded or adapted as appropriate.

We have long understood that kids do better with both mom and dad around. These findings provide fresh evidence that family formation can be a two-way street, with benefits flowing to parents as well.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he conducts research on workforce development, criminal justice reform, and social theory. Caleb Seibert is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.



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