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Bowling Green State University

Adolescent Well-Being in Cohabiting, Married,

and Single-Parent Families

Cohabitation is a family form that increasingly status was perhaps more appropriate when rela-
includes children. We use the National Longitu- tively few children lived in cohabiting unions. Re-
dinal Study of Adolescent Health to assess the cent estimates indicate that two fifths of children
well-being of adolescents in cohabiting parent are expected to spend some time in a cohabiting
stepfamilies (N 5 13,231). Teens living with co- parent family (Bumpass & Lu, 2000), and 41% of
habiting stepparents often fare worse than teens cohabiting unions have children present (Fields &
living with two biological married parents. Ado- Casper, 2000). Despite this shift in childrens ex-
lescents living in cohabiting stepfamilies experi- perience in cohabitation, research on the impli-
ence greater disadvantage than teens living in cations of cohabitation for childrens lives is rel-
married stepfamilies. Most of these differences, atively sparse.
however, are explained by socioeconomic circum- In this paper we examine the well-being of ad-
stances. Teenagers living with single unmarried olescents in cohabiting stepparent families. We use
mothers are similar to teens living with cohabiting the term cohabiting stepfamily to indicate living
stepparents; exceptions include greater delin- with one biological parent and the parents partner
quency and lower grade point averages experi- (cohabiting stepfamily). We address three key ques-
enced by teens living with cohabiting stepparents. tions in this paper. First, do teenagers in cohabiting
Yet mothers marital history explains these differ- stepparent families have similar academic and be-
ences. Our results contribute to our understanding havioral outcomes as teenagers living with two
of cohabitation and debates about the importance married biological parents? We begin with this
of marriage for children.
question because over half of the children in the
United States live with two married biological par-
An extensive literature exists that examines the ents (Fields, 2001), and most research on family
importance of family structure (defined by marital structure contrasts how children in specific family
status) for child well-being. Marital status acts as types fare compared with children living with mar-
an indicator of the potential number of caretakers ried, two-biological-parent families. Second, do
and may imply certain characteristics or qualities children residing with cohabiting stepparents fare
of the childs family life. This emphasis on marital better or worse than children living with single
mothers? We focus on children living with unmar-
Department of Sociology and Center for Family and De- ried mothers and determine how their cohabitation
mographic Research, Bowling Green State University, status influences child well-being. Third, do ado-
Bowling Green, OH 43403 (
lescents in cohabiting stepfather families fare as
Key Words: adolescence, child well-being, cohabitation, well as adolescents living in married stepfather
family structure, marriage, stepfamilies. families? We test whether children living with step-

876 Journal of Marriage and Family 65 (November 2003): 876893

Adolescent Well-Being 877

fathers fare better when their mother is married, Thus, cohabitation for adolescents (unlike for
rather than cohabiting. For each question, we eval- young children) represents a family that is struc-
uate whether the effects of parental cohabitation are turally similar to a stepfamily.
explained by socioeconomic circumstances, parent-
ing, and family instability.
Cohabitation and Family Life
This paper builds on prior research and moves
beyond previous work in several key ways. First, Children in cohabiting parent families experience
by employing a large data source (National Lon- family life that differs from those raised with mar-
gitudinal Study of Adolescent Health), our anal- ried or single parents. Children raised in cohabit-
yses are based on a relatively large number of ing couple families may experience different de-
adolescents in cohabiting stepfather families. Sec- velopmental outcomes, in part because of the
ond, the rich nature of the data allows us to in- family environment or context in which children
clude potentially important factors that represent are raised. We discuss three potential contextual
family processes and may help account for some mechanisms through which family structure, and
observed effects of family structure. Third, we are specifically cohabiting parent families, may influ-
not limited to a single indicator of well-being and ence child well-being: economic circumstances,
focus on multiple measures of well-being that are instability, and parenting.
appropriate for teenagers. Finally, to better under-
stand the implications of cohabitation on child Economic status. Children raised in families with
well-being, we focus on family-type comparisons higher socioeconomic status experience more pos-
based on similar household structure (stepfather itive cognitive and social developmental indica-
presence; cohabiting stepfather vs. married step- tors of well-being (e.g., Carlson & Corcoran,
father) or mothers marital status (unmarried 2001; Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997; McLanahan
mothers; cohabiting mother vs. single mother). & Sandefur, 1994). Indicators of both family in-
come and mothers education exert positive effects
on child development, but income rather than
mothers education seems to have a stronger influ-
ence on child outcomes (Duncan & Brooks-
Cohabitation As a Family Structure
Gunn). It appears that income typically does not
Children in the United States are increasingly like- explain the effects of family structure on child
ly to spend some of their lives residing in a co- well-being, but for some outcomes, it does reduce
habiting parent family. Indeed, two fifths of co- the effect of family structure (Carlson & Corco-
habiting households include children (Fields & ran; Duncan & Brooks-Gunn; Hill, Yeung, &
Casper, 2000). In 1999, 6% of children were liv- Duncan, 2001; McLanahan & Sandefur). On av-
ing with a cohabiting parent (Acs & Nelson, erage, children raised in cohabiting parent families
2001). Bumpass and Lu (2000) estimate that two experience economic situations that are better than
fifths of children in the United States are expected those of children in single-parent families (e.g.,
to experience a cohabiting parent family at some greater parental education and family earnings),
point during their childhood, and children born but more stressful economic situations than chil-
during the early 1990s will spend 9% of their lives dren in married couple families (e.g., greater pov-
living with parents who are in cohabiting unions. erty and food insecurity; Acs & Nelson, 2002;
Adolescents in cohabiting parent families typ- Manning & Lichter, 1996).
ically are living with their mother and her cohab-
iting partner. Based on the 1996 Survey of Income Family stability. Family stability is positively re-
and Program Participation, half (54%) of the chil- lated to child and young adult behavior (Hao &
dren in cohabiting parent families lived with one Xie, 2001; Hill et al., 2001; Wu & Martinson,
biological parent (Fields, 2001). Given the insta- 1993). At times family stability has a stronger in-
bility of cohabiting unions for children, older chil- fluence on child outcomes than family structure.
dren in cohabiting parent families primarily live It is argued that the stress of family change hin-
with their mother and her partner who is not their ders normal developmental transitions among
biological parent (Manning, Smock, & Majumdar, children (Hao & Xie; Hill et al.; Wu & Martin-
in press). Brown (2002) reports that almost all son). Family stability may be particularly impor-
children over the age of 12 in cohabiting parent tant in assessments of the effect of cohabitation
families are living with only one biological parent. because children born to cohabiting parents ex-
878 Journal of Marriage and Family

perience higher levels of instability than children habiting parent families with children living with
born to married parents (Manning et al., in press). two biological married parents. The focus of most
of these studies is not specifically on cohabitation
Parenting. Parental monitoring is important for but more broadly on how family structure influ-
keeping childrens behavior on task and ensuring ences child well-being. The results of these studies
that children meet their individual responsibilities. indicate that children in cohabiting parent families
Empirical evidence supports the notion that pa- fare worse than their counterparts in married, two-
rental monitoring has positive effects on children. biological-parent families.
For example, McLanahan (1997) reports lack of A limitation of this approach is that it con-
supervision by parents is associated with poor founds the effects of marriage and living with two
school performance among children in single and biological parents. Research on family structure
stepparent families. Another core feature of par- recognizes the importance of adults biological
enting is parental support, which is positively re- ties to children and argues that children in two-
lated to desirable outcomes for children and ado- biological-parent families fare better than children
lescents (e.g., Baumrind, 1991). For instance, living with a stepparent (see Coleman, Ganong, &
interacting with children in positive ways has been Fine, 2000). Following this logic, the biological
shown to raise grade point averages and decrease relationship of cohabiting partners should be con-
externalizing behaviors (e.g., OConnor, Hether- sidered in the analysis of child well-being. Many
ington, & Clingempeel, 1997). Parent-child rela- of the children who are living in cohabiting parent
tionships that cross household boundaries also families, particularly older children, are not living
influence childrens development. Evidence sug- with their biological father, making the traditional
gests that closeness to nonresident fathers is pos- married stepparent family a more appropriate
itively associated with child well-being (Amato & comparison group. To better understand the influ-
Gilbreth, 1999; White & Gilbreth, 2001). ence of cohabitation, we argue that comparisons
Parenting in cohabiting unions may have be- should be made across families who share either
come easier as cohabitation moves toward social the same biological relationships to parents (two
acceptance, but cohabiting unions with children biological parents or stepfamilies) or parental
present still do not benefit from legal and social marital status (married or unmarried), and differ
recognition (e.g., Durst, 1997; Mahoney, 2002). in terms of the presence or absence of a cohabiting
Thus the responsibilities of cohabiting partners to partner (Manning, 2002).
children are not specified, creating sources of par- The findings from empirical work suggest that
enting ambiguity in terms of obligations and rights teenagers and children in cohabiting parent step-
of cohabiting partners to their partners children. families sometimes fare worse in terms of behav-
Research that distinguishes parenting behaviors of ior problems and academic performance than chil-
cohabitors from married couples or single parents dren in married stepparent families (Brown, 2001;
supports the notion that slightly more negative Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dornbusch, 1996;
parenting practices occur among cohabiting par- Morrison, 2000; White & Gilbreth, 2001). Other
ents (Brown, 2002; Dunifon & Kowaleski-Jones, research suggests that adolescents and children in
2000; Hofferth & Anderson, 2003; Thomson, cohabiting stepparent families share similar levels
McLanahan, & Curtin, 1992). Yet parenting in- of behavior problems and academic achievement
dicators do not explain the effect of parental co- as children in married stepparent families (Brown;
habitation on child well-being (Dunifon & Ko- Morrison, 1998, 2000). The findings seem to de-
waleski-Jones; Thomson, Hanson, & McLanahan, pend on the gender and age of the child as well
1994; White & Gilbreth, 2001). as the specific dependent or outcome variable
(e.g., math scores vs. verbal scores or internalizing
vs. externalizing behavior).
Cohabitation and Child Outcomes
Only a few studies contrast the well-being of
To date, a limited but growing number of studies children in unmarried mother families who have
examine the social well-being of children living a cohabiting parent with those who do not. Anal-
in cohabiting parent families (e.g., Brown, 2001; ysis of the 1999 National Survey of American
DeLeire & Kalil, 2002; Dunifon & Kowaleski- Families (NSAF) suggests teenagers living in sin-
Jones, 2002; Hao & Xie, 2001; Nelson, Clark, & gle-mother and cohabiting stepparent families
Acs, 2001; Thomson et al., 1994). Often these re- share similar levels of behavior problems (Acs &
searchers contrast the well-being of children in co- Nelson, 2002). Work using longitudinal data and
Adolescent Well-Being 879

multivariate, fixed effects models finds that teen- Jones). Also, nonresident biological fathers are of-
agers living with cohabiting mothers and unmar- ten ignored. Rarely have relationships with non-
ried mothers share similar levels of behavior prob- resident fathers been considered in assessments of
lems (Morrison, 1998). how children living with cohabiting parents fare,
Two shortcomings of prior work are limited despite the fact that this relationship may be ad-
samples and a narrow range of covariates. First, a vantageous to the childs well-being (White &
few studies are restricted only to children of di- Gilbreth, 2001).
vorce (Buchanan et al., 1996; Morrison, 1998,
2000). The implications of cohabitation may differ
among children who have lived with married bi-
ological parents compared with children who have Three broad questions are addressed in this paper.
never lived with their biological father. In addi- First, the literature shows that children are gen-
tion, other data sources (such as the National Sur- erally better off when they live with two biolog-
vey of Families and Households [NSFH]) have ical, married parents (e.g., Brown, 2002; Mc-
small numbers of children in cohabiting, two-bi- Lanahan & Sandefur, 1994). In addition, in 1996
ological-parent and cohabiting stepparent families, over 50% of the children in the United States were
and sample sizes become even smaller when two living in married, two-biological-parent families
waves of data are used (e.g., Hao & Xie, 2001; (Fields, 2001). Therefore, a basic starting point is
White & Gilbreth, 2001). Finally, data sources to demonstrate whether teenagers living with co-
such as the National Longitudinal Survey of habiting stepparent families fare the same or
Youth (NLSY) include less than optimal measures worse than children living with two married, bi-
of parental cohabitation. Parental cohabitation is ological parents.
measured annually, so research using these data is Given the vast literature that supports the rel-
biased toward longer term cohabiting unions ative strength of the married, two-biological-par-
(more than 1 year; Dunifon & Kowaleski-Jones, ent family, of greater interest in this analysis will
2002; Morrison, 2000). Thus, analyses using the be other family structure comparisons. Our second
NLSY may be underestimating the negative ef- question is whether cohabitation provides any ad-
fects of cohabitation because only longer term vantage for children living with unmarried moth-
unions are included in the data. ers. Based on both social control and economic
A second shortcoming is that some research deprivation perspectives, children in single-parent
includes only a narrow set of independent vari- families may fare worse than children in cohabi-
ables. Thus, prior studies cannot explore potential tation because they lack the benefits of income
explanations about why children in cohabiting and parenting that a cohabiting partner may pro-
parent families fare differently than children in vide. As a result, we anticipate that children in
other family types, disentangling the effects of cohabiting-parent families will fare better than
family structure from other factors. First, a few children in single-mother families. A competing
studies include only socioeconomic indicators, hypothesis is that children experience some dis-
such as gender, parental education, and poverty advantages by living with a mothers unmarried
(Hanson, McLanahan, & Thomson, 1997; Nelson partner who may not be a fully integrated family
et al., 2001). Second, other research does not in- member and may compete for their mothers time
clude measures of family instability or indicators and attention. Family roles may not be as clearly
of relationship quality (Acs & Nelson, 2002; established in cohabiting stepfamilies, perhaps
Thomson et al., 1994). The NSAF does not in- creating confusion over parenting responsibilities
clude questions about duration of the parents re- and weak child-stepparent relationships. This hy-
lationship or relational history (Acs & Nelson; pothesis is consistent with the role ambiguity per-
Brown, 2001; Nelson et al., 2001). Other studies spective used to understand stepfamilies. In this
that include measures of family stability do not case, adolescents in cohabiting stepfamilies would
incorporate measures of the resident parents re- fare worse than adolescents in single-mother fam-
lationship quality (DeLeire & Kalil, 2002; Duni- ilies. Finally, we may find no effect of cohabita-
fon & Kowaleski-Jones, 2002; Hao & Xie, 2001). tion as the benefits and costs of a cohabiting par-
Third, many studies do not include measures of ent outweigh one another. The bulk of research on
parenting strategies when evaluating the effects of stepfamilies indicates that children in stepfamilies
parental cohabitation on well-being (exceptions and single-mother families share similar devel-
include Brown, 2001, and Dunifon & Kowaleski- opmental outcomes (Coleman et al., 2000). Thus
880 Journal of Marriage and Family

we may find that adolescents who live in cohab- Tests, grades in school, and college expectations.
iting stepfamilies fare as well as children who re- As any one measure may suffer some shortcom-
side with a single mother. ings, taken together we have indicators of well-
Third, do children experience any advantage being that tap several dimensions of adolescent
by living in a married (or traditional) rather than behavior and academic well-being.
in a cohabiting stepparent family? We determine Fourth, we are able to include key variables
whether children in married stepparent families that may explain some of the effects of family
fare as well as children in cohabiting stepparent structure on child outcomes. We include measures
families. Marriage provides the socioeconomic of parenting characteristics (closeness to mother
benefits and stability that cohabitation does not and nonresident father, as well as monitoring); so-
offer. Moreover, family roles may be clearly de- cioeconomic status (mothers education and fam-
fined and child-stepparent relationships more for- ily income); and family stability (number of moth-
malized in married than in cohabiting stepparent ers marriages and duration of relationship). Most
families. We expect children in married stepfam- prior work has accounted for one or more of these
ilies to have better developmental outcomes than measures, but no study has accounted for all of
children in cohabiting stepfamilies. Once we ac- these factors simultaneously.
count for the parents relationship with the child, In addition to our measures of socioeconomic
family stability, and socioeconomic characteris- status, family stability, and parenting, we control
tics, however, these differences according to mar- for a number of sociodemographic and child char-
ital status may no longer exist. These findings may acteristics, including race and ethnicity, mothers
suggest that marriage itself does not create the ad- age, childs age and sex, number of children in the
vantage experienced by children in married step- household, and importance of religion to the child.
parent families. If differences persist, then such Although residing in a cohabiting or single-parent
findings would indicate that some feature of co- family is increasingly common for all children, it
habitation itself (i.e., role ambiguity) may have is a more common feature of the life experiences
negative consequences for children in this type of of Black and Hispanic children (Bumpass & Lu,
family structure. 2000). We also control for mothers age; older
Previous work provides some initial evidence mothers may be more skilled at parenting, which
about the effects of cohabitation on child well- in turn may result in increased attentiveness to chil-
being. In this project we build on previous studies drens needs. The number of ones siblings is re-
in four key ways. First, many of the previous stud- lated negatively to academic achievement (e.g.,
ies do not distinguish between adolescents and Carlson & Corcoran, 2001), presumably because
younger children. Our focus on adolescents limits more children in the household means parents pos-
our conclusions to one stage of childhood, but at sess fewer instrumental and emotional resources to
the same time allows us to detail the effects of invest in each child individually. In terms of the
family structure for a critical period of develop- characteristics of the adolescent, boys tend to ex-
ment. We examine outcomes that are most salient perience more behavior problems than girls, and
for adolescents. girls tend to have higher academic achievement
Second, most adolescents in cohabiting parent than boys (Carlson & Corcoran). We control for
families are living with only one biological parent childs age, as older children may experience fewer
(Brown, 2001). Thus, answers to questions about behavior problems as a function of maturity. We
the effects of cohabitation require being specific also control for the importance of religion to the
about the family type contrasts. The traditional ap- adolescent, as involvement with an institution that
proach is to compare the well-being of all children encourages adherence to particular moral standards
in cohabiting families with those in married, two- may act as an agent of social control to discourage
biological-parent families. Yet, contrasting the deviant behavior in young people. Families who
well-being of adolescents in married and cohab- encourage religious attendance may also more
iting stepfamilies is more appropriate because closely monitor the actions of their children.
these families share the same basic structure (bi-
ological mother and her cohabiting partner). METHOD
Third, we include a range of indicators of well-
being. For example, we do not rely on a single Data
measure to indicate academic achievement. We in- We draw on the first wave of the National Lon-
clude measures of Peabody Picture Vocabulary gitudinal Adolescent Study of Adolescent Health
Adolescent Well-Being 881

(Add Health). The Add Health is based on inter- adolescents living with unmarried mothers (sin-
views with students in grades 7 through 12 and gle-mother vs. cohabiting-mother families) so we
their parents in 1995. These data are based on a can estimate the effect of cohabitation among un-
sample of 80 high schools and 52 middle schools married mothers. Second, we focus on teenagers
from the United States. We use the contractual living with stepfathers (married stepfather families
data that include in-home interviews administered vs. cohabiting stepfather families) so we can de-
to 18,924 students with a response rate of 78.2% termine the influence of formal marital status
(Udry, 1998). These sample schools were selected among children living with stepfathers. Our anal-
with unequal probability of selection. Once design ysis of teens living with single mothers and step-
effects are taken into account, these data are na- fathers is based on 5,504 respondents.
tionally representative of adolescents in the Unit-
ed States (see Bearman, Jones, & Udry, 1997). We
Dependent Variables
use procedures in a software package, STATA, to
ensure our results are nationally representative We include a range of indicators of well-being.
with unbiased estimates (Chantala & Tabor, 1999). The indicators of behavior problems are ever hav-
In this paper we use the first wave of the Add ing been expelled or suspended from school, ex-
Health data. This cross-sectional analysis provides periencing trouble in school, and self-reported de-
a basic starting point for understanding whether linquency scores. The suspension or expulsion
parental cohabitation is associated with indicators measure is a dichotomous measure simply indi-
of child well-being. Researchers often emphasize cating whether the respondent ever received an
how changes in family structure influence child out of school suspension from school or an ex-
outcomes without understanding whether and how pulsion from school. This is coded such that 1 5
specific family structures are associated with child yes and 0 5 no. Unlike the other outcomes, ex-
outcomes. Furthermore, fixed effects models do pulsion or suspension may occur prior to the for-
not allow for the analysis of how core, fixed, so- mation of the current family, but provides a rough
ciodemographic variables such as race or gender indicator of problem behavior. The second mea-
influence adolescent outcomes. sure, problems in school, assesses the respondents
The Add Health is appropriate because it con- difficulty in the school context. The four items
tains a large number of adolescents living in co- comprising the scale indicate the degree, since the
habiting parent families, includes key measures of start of the school year, the respondent has had
consequential adolescent outcomes, and has rich problems getting along with teachers, paying at-
measures of family processes that may explain tention in school, getting homework done, and
some of the observed differences in family struc- getting along with other students. (All items are
ture. Other data sources, such as the National Sur- coded such that 0 5 never, 1 5 just a few times,
vey of American Families and Current Population 2 5 about once a week, 3 5 almost every day,
Survey, provide information only about the cur- and 4 5 every day.) The responses are summed so
rent family situation and no details about family the scores may range from 0 to 16. This measure
stability. Yet the Add Health data do not include has a Cronbach a reliability of .69. The delin-
details about family structure histories. quency scale is composed of 15 items asking the
Our analytic sample depends on the question frequency that respondents engaged in a series of
that we address. Dividing the sample is necessary delinquent acts over the past 12 months, including
because not all of the predictors used for analyses painting graffiti or signs on someone elses prop-
of married, two-biological-parent families can be erty or in a public place; deliberately damaging
applied to the unmarried and stepparent families property; lying to parents or guardian about whom
(e.g., number of mothers prior marriages and respondent had been with; taking something from
nonresident father closeness). We begin by con- a store without paying for it; getting into a serious
trasting the well-being of children in cohabiting physical fight; hurting someone badly enough to
stepparent families to those living in married, two- need medical care; running away from home;
biological-parent families, including all possible driving a car without the owners permission;
family types. Our analytic sample consists of stealing something worth more than $50; going
13,231 adolescents. Our next analysis is limited into a house or building to steal something; using
to teens living in stepfamilies and single-mother or threatening to use a weapon to get something
families. We make two sets of specific family from someone; selling marijuana or other drugs;
comparisons. First, we examine the well-being of stealing something worth less than $50; taking
882 Journal of Marriage and Family

part in a fight where a group of friends was live in two-biological-parent cohabiting families.
against another group; or being loud, unruly, or This is consistent with findings from other data
rowdy in a public place. Responses (scored such (Brown, 2002). Thus, we limit our analyses of co-
that 0 5 never, 1 5 one or two times, 3 5 three habitation to adolescents living with their biolog-
or four times, 3 5 five or more times) were ical mother and her cohabiting partner (cohabiting
summed such that the scores ranged from 0 to 45. stepfather families). Our family structure catego-
After the items were summed, cases were omitted ries include two married biological parents, single
from analysis when less than 75% (11 items) of mother, married stepfather, and cohabiting step-
the items had valid responses. Cases where 75% father. Table 1 shows the distribution of the in-
or more of the items had valid data were given dependent variables according to each family
the mean of the scale on any items with missing type. Among adolescents living in stepfamilies,
data. This strategy allows us to retain respondents one third live with cohabiting parents and two
in our sample and base delinquency scores on a thirds live with married parents. Among adoles-
minimum of 11 items. The delinquency measure cents living with unmarried mothers, 13% are liv-
has a high Cronbach a reliability of .85. ing with their mother and her cohabiting partner.
Measures of cognitive development or academ- The unmarried mothers may be never married, di-
ic achievement and expectations are student-re- vorced, or widowed. These findings mirror those
ported grade point average, Peabody Picture Vo- reported in the NSAF and NSFH (Brown, 2002;
cabulary Test, and college expectations. Only one Bumpass, 1994).
measure may not be an adequate indicator of ac- The remaining independent variables are divid-
ademic achievement. Low grade point average is ed into three categories: sociodemographic, par-
a dichotomous measure indicating whether, of enting or socialization variables, and family sta-
four subject areas in school (English, mathemat- bility. The distribution for each of the independent
ics, history or social studies, and science), the re- variables is provided in Table 1.
spondent received two or more grades of D or
lower. Respondents receiving two or more Ds or Sociodemographic. Race and ethnicity respon-
Fs were coded as 1, and respondents receiving dents is based on their own response and coded
one or no Ds or Fs were coded as 0. We use this into four categories: Black, White, Latino, and
measure of poor academic performance because Other. The other category includes groups that
grading systems vary considerably across schools, are too small to distinguish in analyses. In both
and student grades depend on the types of classes stepparent and unmarried mother families, the ma-
students attend (e.g., advanced placement courses jority of the adolescents are White, whereas 15%
vs. a general curriculum). The second indicator is are Black and 12% Latino. The family income
an abbreviated version of the Peabody Picture Vo- measure is logged and the family income values
cabulary Test. We use the age-standardized scores are higher among teens in married stepparent fam-
with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of ilies than in the other family types. A shortcoming
15. This is considered a measure of verbal cog- of the Add Health data is that a considerable share
nitive ability or development. The third indicator (23%) of the sample has missing data on income.
measures expectations for college. Respondents To avoid deleting all of these cases, respondents
were asked how much they want to go to college with missing income are coded to the mean value
(responses ranging from 1 5 low to 5 5 high). of income and a dummy variable is included in
The mean response on this question was high with the model that indicates which respondents were
a value of 4. missing on income. Mothers age is coded as a
continuous variable, and the mean value is 32.
Mothers education is coded on an ordinal scale
Independent Variables
(1 5 eighth grade or less; 2 5 more than eighth
Family structure. The key independent variable is grade, but did not graduate from high school; 3
family structure. Cohabitation family status is es- 5 went to a business, trade, or vocational school
tablished by the adolescent response in the house- in place of high school; 4 5 received a GED; 5
hold roster question and by the parents response 5 high school graduate; 6 5 went to college but
to relationship questions. If either the adolescent did not graduate; 7 5 graduated from a college
or the parent reports that the parent has a cohab- or university; 8 5 had professional training be-
iting partner, then the family is coded as a cohab- yond college). On average, single mothers have a
iting parent family. We find very few adolescents high school education, and mothers in married
Adolescent Well-Being 883


Two Biological Single Married Cohabiting
Parents Mother Stepfather Stepfather

White .75 .49 .73 .56
(.02) (.04) (.02) (.04)
Black .07 .33 .11 .19
(.01) (.04) (.02) (.03)
Hispanic .11 .13 .11 .19
(.02) (.02) (.02) (.03)
Other .07 .05 .06 .07
(.01) (.01) (.01) (.01)
Log family income 3.75 3.01 3.63 3.19
(.03) (.04) (.03) (.05)
Missing income (1 5 yes) .12 .21 .08 .15
(.01) (.01) (.01) (.03)
Mothers age 41.2 39.15 38.19 37.53
(.17) (.22) (.23) (.28)
Mothers education 5.49 5.04 5.43 4.89
(.09) (.10) (.09) (.13)
Childs age 15.28 15.35 15.33 15.20
(.12) (.14) (.13) (.17)
Childs sex (1 5 male) .52 .47 .51 .54
(.01) (.01) (.02) (.03)
Importance of religion to child 3.34 3.33 3.31 3.21
(.02) (.02) (.03) (.04)
Number of children in household 1.24 1.28 1.45 1.41
(.03) (.06) (.05) (.09)
Family Stability
Number of mothers marriages 1.01 1.45 2.12 2.16
(.25) (.03) (.03) (.06)
Duration of relationship 15.20 6.67 4.44
(.20) (.23) (.27)
Monitoring by parents 1.93 1.70 1.97 1.82
(.06) (.07) (.08) (.10)
Closeness to mother 4.56 4.58 4.63 4.49
(.02) (.02) (.02) (.05)
Closeness to nonresident father 3.06 3.13 3.11
(.03) (.05) (.07)
Missing closeness to nonresident .25 .26 .27
father (1 5 yes) (.01) (.02) (.03)
N 7,727 3,593 1,352 559
Note: From the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health.

stepfamilies have the highest levels of education. Family stability. Indicators of family stability in-
Religiosity is measured by responses to questions clude mothers relationship history and duration
about the importance of religion in the life of the of current relationship. The number of mothers
adolescent. The responses range from 1 to 4, with prior marriage-like relationships is included as a
1 indicating not at all important and 4 indicating control variable. These relationships are asked
very important. The mean response is 3.3, indi- about in reference to the 18-year period prior to
cating religion is considered fairly important. The Wave I, or from 19771995, so these refer to
mean age of the child is 15 and the ages range changes in mothers relationships during the
from 11 to 21. The sample is evenly split between course of the childs lifetime. Single mothers have
boys and girls. On average, about one other child been in, on average, only one marriage-like rela-
lives in the household. tionship, and cohabiting and married mothers in
884 Journal of Marriage and Family

this sample have been in, on average, two rela- Our analytic strategy is to estimate a series of
tionships. The following indicator of stability is models for each outcome. We first estimate a zero-
applied only to the stepfamily analysis. Stability order or bivariate model that includes only the
of the stepfamilies is measured in terms of the family structure variable. The second model we
duration of the parental relationship. The mean present adds the remaining factors, including so-
duration of the cohabiting stepfamilies is 4.4 cioeconomic, parenting, and family stability mea-
years, and the mean duration of the married step- sures. We also enter variables separately to assess
families is 6.7 years. This is consistent with find- how they contribute to the fit of the models, but
ings from the NSFH (Hao & Xie, 2001). because of space constraints, we do not present
the results in the tables.
Parenting. The parenting measures focus on con-
trol and support. Parental control is based on a
seven-item scale with high values indicating high
control. The questions are coded dichotomously
Distribution of Adolescent Outcomes
(0 5 yes and 1 5 no) and then summed. Adoles-
cent respondents are asked whether parents let Table 2 presents the mean and median values of
them make their own decisions about the time the dependent variables according to each family
they must be home on weekend nights, the people type. This provides information about the basic
they hang around with, what they wear, how much levels of the well-being indicators and shows the
TV they watch, which TV programs they watch, range of values for the measures of well-being.
what time they go to bed on week nights, and Most teenagers, regardless of family type, were
what they eat. The a reliability of the scale is .64. not expelled or suspended from school. Two fifths
The mean level of control is 1.83, indicating a of the adolescents in single-mother and cohabiting
fairly low level of parental supervision. stepfather families were expelled or suspended,
Closeness to resident mother is an individual and three tenths of teens living in married step-
item, asking teens how close they feel to their father families experienced school suspension or
mothers, coded 1 5 not at all, 2 5 very little, 3 expulsion. Delinquency levels range from 0 to 45,
5 somewhat, 4 5 quite a bit, 5 5 very much. The so those reported are quite low, and the mean val-
average closeness to mothers ranges between ues are highest for teens living in cohabiting step-
quite a bit to very much. Unfortunately, the data father families. In terms of school problems, the
do not include questions about closeness to co- values fall within a narrow range from 3.95 to
habiting stepfathers. For those respondents who 4.79, suggesting that the majority of teenagers
report having a nonresident biological father, the have just a few troubles in school. The measure
same question is included as a predictor. The av- of academic achievement shows that the vast ma-
erage value is somewhat close. We also include a jority of teens in each family type have not re-
dummy variable measuring whether responses ceived Ds or Fs in two or more subjects. The Pea-
were missing on closeness to nonresident father. body Picture Vocabulary Test is an indicator of
This strategy allows us to retain the variable in cognitive development, and the scores range from
our analyses; approximately one quarter of the 98 to 104, with adolescents in married, two-bio-
sample is missing on the indicator of closeness to logical-parent families scoring best. Finally, most
nonresident father. teens possess high expectations for attending col-
lege, and there appears to be only slight variation
according to family type.
We correct for design effects and the unequal
Cohabiting Stepparent and Married,
probability of selection using STATA (Chantala &
Two-Biological-Parent Families
Tabor, 1999). The analytic method depends on the
nature of the dependent variables. Logistic regres- Our first aim is to contrast the well-being of chil-
sion is used for analyses of dichotomous depen- dren in cohabiting stepfamilies to children living
dent variables, whether the adolescent was ex- in married, two-biological-parent families (refer-
pelled or suspended from school and whether the ence category in Table 3). The inclusion of the
teen received low grades. Ordinary least square entire sample for these analyses prevents us from
regressions are estimated for all remaining out- using the couple-level indicators (duration, rela-
comes. tionship quality); number of mothers prior mar-
Adolescent Well-Being 885


Two Biological Unmarried Step Step
Dependent Variables Parents Single Mother Married Cohabiting

M .18 (.01) .39 (.02) .30 (.02) .41 (.30)
Median 0 0 0 0
M 3.76 (.10) 4.67 (.15) 4.29 (.18) 5.44 (.33)
Median 3 3 3 3
School problems
M 3.95 (.06) 4.52 (.09) 4.60 (.11) 4.79 (.19)
Median 3 4 4 4
Low grade point average
M .09 (.01) .15 (.01) .14 (.01) .19 (.02)
Median 0 0 0 0
M 103.87 (.56) 98 (.78) 102 (.62) 98 (1.02)
Median 104 97 101 98
College expectations
M 4.50 (.03) 4.37 (.03) 4.42 (.04) 4.28 (.07)
Median 5 5 5 5
Note: From the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health. Means are weighted using Wave I grand sample
weight. PPVT 5 Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test.

riages; and relationship with nonresident fathers of child well-being. Girls appear to fare better
in the models. We highlight the findings related to than boys. Younger children more often have
the well-being of teenagers living in cohabiting higher levels of delinquency, school problems,
stepparent families. Notably, adolescents living in low GPA, and lack college expectations. Religi-
married, two-biological-parent families generally osity often is associated with higher levels of child
fare better than teenagers living in any other fam- well-being. Teenagers who are closer to their
ily type. mothers have fewer behavioral and academic
The first three columns show that teens who problems.
reside in cohabiting stepfather families experience
122% (exponential value of 0.80) higher odds of
Cohabiting Stepparent, Married Stepparent, and
being expelled from school, greater levels of de-
Single-Mother Families
linquency, and more school problems than teen-
agers residing with two married, biological par- The first row of Table 4 shows the effect of living
ents. The next three columns indicate that with married rather than cohabiting stepparents on
adolescents living with cohabiting stepfathers are adolescent problem behaviors. These sets of find-
more likely to have a low grade point average or ings reflect the importance of formal marital sta-
experience 90% (exponential value of 0.64) great- tus. The second row presents the effect of living
er odds of low grades and score worse on the with a single mother rather than cohabiting step-
vocabulary test. Teenagers living with cohabiting parents on teenage problem behaviors. These re-
stepfathers have similar expectations of going to sults indicate how mothers cohabitation influenc-
college as teenagers living with two married, bi- es teenage well-being among unmarried mothers.
ological parents. At the bivariate level, college ex- The first model shows the zero-order or bivariate
pectations are lower among teens living with co- effects, and the second model presents the effects
habiting stepfathers than teens living with two of family structure, net of the other variables. We
biological married parents. The effects of the oth- present the family structure effects for each model
er covariates vary across adolescent outcomes. We and then discuss the effects of the remaining co-
find that higher levels of family income and moth- variates.
ers education are typically related to higher levels The first column shows that at the bivariate
886 Journal of Marriage and Family


(N 5 13,231)

School Low College

Suspend/Expela Delinquency Problems GPAb PPVT Expectations

Family structure (Married, two biological)

Cohabiting stepfather .80*** 1.32** .76*** .64*** 22.36** 2.10
(.13) (.32) (.17) (.17) (.70) (.06)
Married stepfather .56*** .61** .69*** .52*** 2.93 2.05
(.08) (.21) (.12) (.12) (.47) (.04)
Single mother .62*** .95*** .66*** .38*** 2.85* 2.04
(.09) (.19) (.09) (.10) (.40) (.03)
Sociodemographic characteristics
Race (White)
Black .99*** .22 2.20 0.005 29.09*** .10**
(.11) (.18) (.14) (.12) (.68) (.04)
Hispanic .17 1.02 2.27 .19 27.10*** .08
(.13) (.24) (.17) (.14) (.74) (.05)
Other .03 .72 2.003 2.18 23.42*** .16**
(.13) (.26) (.17) (.15) (.86) (.05)
Log family income 2.25*** 2.03 .01 2.20*** 2.16*** .10***
(.06) (.11) (.05) (.05) (.27) (.02)
Missing income (no) .01 2.35 2.0001 .24* 21.59** 2.02
(.07) (.20) (.11) (.12) (.51) (.04)
Mothers age 2.01* .005 0.002 2.01 .03 .01**
(.005) (.01) (.006) (.01) (.03) (.002)
Mothers education 2.14*** 2.006 2.03 2.13*** 1.44*** 2.07***
(.02) (.03) (.02) (.02) (.11) (.01)
Childs age .11*** 2.12** 2.04 2.03 2.30* .07***
(.03) (.04) (.03) (.03) (.12) (.01)
Childs sex (female) .97*** 1.62*** .81*** .51*** 1.36*** 2.17***
(.06) (.11) (.07) (.08) (.30) (.03)
Importance of 2.15*** 2.75*** 2.27*** 2.25*** 2.29 .10***
religion to child (.04) (.09) (.06) (.05) (.24) (.02)
Number of children in .04 2.001 .02 0.002 2.79*** 2.01
household (.03) (.05) (.03) (.03) (.15) (.01)
Monitoring .002 2.11* 2.04 .01 21.14*** 2.03*
(.02) (.05) (.03) (.03) (.14) (.01)
Closeness to mother 2.17*** 21.29*** 2.64*** 2.19*** 2.75*** .11***
(.04) (.10) (.05) (.04) (.20) (.02)
Intercept 2.45 12.4** 7.80*** 1.36* 91.79*** 3.55***
(.58) (1.07) (.57) (.58) (2.38) (.21)
F-valuec 26585.5*** 25.7*** 26.7*** 24396.2*** 77.9*** 29.1***
R2 d .13 .09 .06 .05 .25 .07
Note: Reference category for variables is presented in parentheses. Unstandardized coefficients are presented, and standard
errors are shown in parentheses. PPVT 5 Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test.
Logistic regression was used for suspended or expelled, 1 5 yes. bLogistic regression was employed for low grade point
average (1 5 low grades). cThe log likelihood is shown for the models predicting suspension or expulsion and low grade
point average. dThe R2 is the pseudo R2 for the models predicting suspension or expulsion and low grade point average.
*p , .05. **p , .01. ***p , .001.

level, teenagers living in married stepparent fam- parenting variables (closeness to mother and mon-
ilies have significantly lower odds of being sus- itoring) reduce the effect of marital status. Thus
pended or expelled from school than teens resid- in the multivariate model teens living in married
ing in cohabiting stepparent families. The second and cohabiting stepparent families share similar
model shows that this family structure effect can odds of being suspended or expelled from school.
be explained by the other covariates. No single We shift the reference category to single mothers
factor explains the effect of family structure: So- and find that children living in married stepfather
ciodemographic variables in conjunction with the families have similar odds of being suspended or
Adolescent Well-Being 887


Suspension/Expulsion a
Delinquency School Problems
Model 1 Model 2 Model 1 Model 2 Model 1 Model 2

Family structure (Cohabiting stepfather)

Married stepfather 2.52*** 2.21 21.15** 2.68* 2.19 2.10
(.14) (.15) (.36) (.35) (.22) (.20)
Single mother 2.11 2.06 2.76* 2.06 2.27 0.005
(.12) (.14) (.35) (.37) (.19) (.20)
Sociodemographic characteristics
Race (White)
Black .97*** .23 2.30
(.12) (.25) (.18)
Hispanic .11 1.17** 2.33
(.17) (.39) (.21)
Other .15 1.00* .16
(.18) (.47) (.30)
Log family income 2.22*** .05 .07
(.06) (.15) (.07)
Missing income (no) .15 2.31 .01
(.11) (.27) (.14)
Mothers age 2.01 .01 .02
(.01) (.02) (.01)
Mothers education 2.16*** 2.04 2.05
(.02) (.05) (.03)
Childs age .07* 2.21*** 2.09*
(.03) (.06) (.04)
Childs sex (female) .96*** 2.01*** .94***
(.09) (.22) (.12)
Importance of religion to 2.17** 2.72*** 2.25**
child (.05) (.15) (.08)
Number of children in .05 0.001 .04
household (.03) (.08) (.05)
Family stability
Number of mothers .16*** .39** .15*
marriages (.04) (.15) (.07)
Monitoring 2.02 2.13 2.06
(.02) (.10) (.05)
Closeness to mother 2.21*** 21.18*** 2.55**
(.05) (.16) (.07)
Closeness to nonresident father 2.06* 2.29*** 2.13**
(.03) (.08) (.06)
Missing closeness to .02 2.16 2.06
nonresident father (no) (.09) (.24) (.12)
Intercept 2.35** .73 5.44*** 13.97*** 4.79** 7.95***
F-valueb 23591.45 23225.41 4.84* 11.95*** 2.03 7.73***
R2 c .01 .11 .00 .09 .00 .06
Note: Reference category for variables is presented in parentheses. Unstandardized coefficients are presented, and standard
errors are shown in parentheses.
Logistic regression was used for suspended or expelled, 1 5 yes. b The log likelihood is shown for the models predicting
suspension or expulsion. cThe R2 is the pseudo R2 for the models predicting suspension or expulsion and low grade point
*p # .05. **p # .01. ***p # .001.

expelled as their counterparts living in single- pended from school as adolescents living with
mother families (results not shown). The next row their mother and her cohabiting partner. This is
indicates that adolescents living with single moth- true in both the bivariate and multivariate models.
ers have similar odds of being expelled or sus- In terms of delinquency, teens living in married
888 Journal of Marriage and Family

stepfather families have significantly lower levels Table 5 shows the effects of cohabitation on
than teens living in cohabiting stepfather families. academic well-being, and the table format mirrors
The results in the next column suggest that the Table 4. The first column of Table 5 shows that
inclusion of the remaining covariates reduces but teenagers living in married stepfather families
does not fully explain the marital status effect. have lower odds of earning low grades than teens
The multivariate model indicates that teenagers in cohabiting stepfather families. Yet the inclusion
living in married rather than cohabiting stepparent of the remaining covariates (income in particular)
families have significantly lower delinquency explains this difference. We also do not find sta-
scores. We also find that teenagers living with tistical differences between teens living in married
married stepfathers have lower levels of delin- stepfamilies and single-mother families (results
quency than teens living with single mothers (re- not shown). The next row shows that adolescents
sults not shown). living with unmarried mothers who are cohabiting
Delinquency is significantly lower among ad- have higher odds of having low grades than teens
olescents living with just their mother than those living with single mothers. The inclusion of the
living with their mother and her cohabiting part- remaining covariates shifts the relationship be-
ner. Yet the next column includes all of the co- tween family structure and grades such that teens
variates and shows that these differences are no in cohabiting stepparent and single-mother fami-
longer statistically significant. The effect of family lies share similar odds of having low grades. The
structure on delinquency is primarily explained by family structure differences are explained by our
the number of mothers marriages. indicator of family stability, the number of moth-
The last two columns in Table 4 present the ers marriages.
effects of the covariates on school problems. The The next two columns present the effects of
bivariate and multivariate model results show that family structure on verbal ability. At the bivariate
teenagers in cohabiting and married stepfather level, adolescents in married stepfather families
families have similar levels of school problems. score higher on the vocabulary test than teens in
Further analyses indicate that married stepfathers cohabiting stepfather families. The effect of co-
and single mothers have similar school problems habitation is reduced with the inclusion of the ex-
(results not shown). The next row shows teenagers planatory variables; however, the family effect is
living with single mothers and cohabiting partners marginally significant (p 5 .06). In contrast, teen-
share similar levels of trouble in school. agers living in married stepfather and single-
The remaining covariates in Table 4 operate in mother families share similar levels of verbal abil-
the expected direction and vary somewhat de- ity (results not shown). Adolescents living in
pending on the particular outcome. Younger teen- unmarried mother families without cohabiting
agers and boys consistently are more likely to ex- partners and with cohabiting partners have statis-
perience problems. The indicator of importance of tically similar verbal ability scores, suggesting
religion is also negatively associated with problem that teens mothers cohabitation status is not re-
behaviors. The greater the number of mothers lated to cognitive development.
marriages, the higher the incidence of problem be- The last two columns focus on college expec-
haviors. Closeness to mother as well as closeness tations. The bivariate results demonstrate that ad-
to nonresident father are associated with fewer olescents living in married stepfather families pos-
problem behaviors. sess higher college expectations than adolescents
Further analyses of only teenagers living in living in cohabiting stepfamilies. The final col-
stepfamilies reveal that duration of the parental umn, however, shows that these family structure
relationship is usually not associated with adoles- differences no longer persist when the remaining
cent behavior problems (results not shown). We covariates are included. The positive effect of
also tested whether the effects of family type dif- marriage on college expectations reduces to non-
fer according to the duration of the parental rela- significance when income or mothers education
tionship. Analyses of interaction effects indicate is included in the model. Similarly, teenagers liv-
that the effects of family type differ according to ing with married stepfathers and single mothers
duration for only one outcome, school problems do not differ in terms of college expectations (re-
(results not shown). The effect of marital status sults not shown). In both bivariate and multivari-
on school problems is greater early in the rela- ate models, youth living in cohabiting stepfather
tionship and then diminishes at later union dura- families and single-mother families share similar
tions. expectations for college. Among children living
Adolescent Well-Being 889


Low Grade Point Peabody Picture

Averagea Vocabulary Test College Expectations
Model 1 Model 2 Model 1 Model 2 Model 1 Model 2

Family structure (Cohabiting stepfather)

Married stepfather 2.38* 2.11 4.21*** 1.65 .13* .06
(.18) (.19) (.99) (.86) (.06) (.07)
Single mother 2.33* 2.20 .36 1.29 .09 .04
(.16) (.18) (.98) (.80) (.07) (.06)
Sociodemographic characteristics
Race (White)
Black .03 28.62*** .11*
(.15) (.77) (.05)
Hispanic .20 26.17*** .03
(.18) (.98) (.08)
Other 2.03 22.91* .14*
(.23) (1.12) (.07)
Log family income 2.20** 1.97*** .09***
(.06) (.33) (.02)
Missing income (no) .37* 22.39*** 2.09
(.18) (.64) (.06)
Mothers age 2.01 .03 0.004
(.01) (.05) (.003)
Mothers education 2.09** 1.51*** .05***
(.03) (.14) (.01)
Childs age 2.04 2.49** 2.09***
(.03) (.16) (.01)
Childs sex (female) .48*** 1.64*** 2.20***
(.11) (.46) (.04)
Importance of religion 2.16* 2.58 .11***
to child (.08) (.39) (.03)
Number of children 2.03 21.00*** 2.01
in household (.04) (.19) (.02)
Family stability
Number of mothers .13** 2.37 2.03
marriages (.05) (.31) (.02)
Monitoring 2.04 21.29*** 2.02
(.03) (.20) (.02)
Closeness to mother 2.22** 2.96*** .08***
(.07) (.30) (.02)
Closeness to nonresident 2.09* 2.08 .04*
father (.04) (.23) (.02)
Missing closeness to 2.12 21.80*** 2.10
nonresident father (no) (.12) (.49) (.05)
Intercept 21.43*** 1.75* 97.74*** 95.39*** 4.28** 4.20***
F-valueb 21778.52 22245.05 .11 45.68*** 2.03 12.54***
R2 c .08 .04 .01 .26 .001 .07
Note: Reference category for variables is presented in parentheses. Unstandardized coefficients are presented, and standard
errors are shown in parentheses.
Logistic regression was employed for low grade point average (1 5 low grades). bThe log likelihood is shown for the
models predicting low grade point average. cThe R2 is the pseudo R2 for the models predicting suspension or expulsion and
low grade point average.
*p # .05. **p # .01. ***p # .001.
890 Journal of Marriage and Family

with unmarried mothers, the cohabiting parent ditional data about the relationship between
does not appear to improve or worsen adolescents cohabiting and married stepfathers relationships
school aspirations. to their wives and partners children may help to
In terms of the remaining covariates, we find explain this marriage advantage. We lack mea-
minority youth more often have lower academic surement of role ambiguity, which may serve to
outcomes than Whites. Mothers education, family distinguish parenting roles in cohabiting and mar-
income, and religiosity are associated with higher ried stepfamilies. Married stepfathers may have a
academic achievement. Boys have lower college more clearly defined obligation to their stepchil-
expectations and grades than girls. Closeness to dren than cohabiting stepfathers (Hofferth & An-
mothers and nonresident fathers is related to high- derson, 2003). The act of remarriage may carry
er college expectations and grades. Additional with it a more pronounced expectation of stepfa-
analyses of just teenagers in stepfamilies show ther involvement (e.g., spending time with step-
that the quality of parental relationships and du- children and contributing financially to their up-
ration of parental relationship are not associated bringing) that has positive consequences for child
with most adolescent academic outcomes. One ex- well-being.
ception is that duration of stepparents relationship The results from this paper suggest that teen-
is positively tied to adolescent college expecta- agers living with unmarried mothers do not seem
tions. to benefit from the presence of their mothers co-
habiting partner. We argued at the outset that it
may be important to distinguish between unmar-
ried mothers who are cohabiting and those living
Recent debates have emerged about the advantage alone. In terms of adolescent outcomes, we do not
of marriage for adults and children (e.g., Waite & appear to gain much by distinguishing between
Gallagher, 2000). Adolescents in married, two-bi- cohabiting stepfather and single-mother families.
ological-parent families generally fare better than We do find differences at the bivariate level, how-
children in any of the family types examined here, ever, in terms of delinquency and low grades in
including single-mother, cohabiting stepfather, and school. Thus, as found in the stepfamily literature
married stepfather families. The advantage of (e.g., Coleman et al., 2000), mens presence alone
marriage appears to exist primarily when the child seems neither sufficient nor necessary to create
is the biological offspring of both parents. Our positive outcomes for children. Indeed, our results
findings are consistent with previous work, which show that stepfathers (married or cohabiting) pro-
demonstrates children in cohabiting stepparent vide limited benefit when contrasted with single-
families fare worse than children living with two mother families. Our findings suggest that neither
married, biological parents (e.g., Acs & Nelson, parental cohabitation nor marriage to a partner or
2002; Brown, 2001; DeLeire & Kalil, 2002; Hao spouse who is not related to the child (stepfamily
& Xie, 2001). formation) is associated with uniform advantage
Researchers argue that we need to expand our in terms of behavioral or academic indicators to
traditional understanding of stepfamily life to in- teenagers living in single-mother families. These
clude cohabiting stepfamilies (Stewart, 2001). The results are consistent with research focusing on
marital status of men in stepfamilies appears to behavior problems (Acs & Nelson, 2002; Morri-
influence adolescent well-being. Among adoles- son, 1998). Our findings are not consistent with
cents living in stepfamilies, those living with mar- Nelson et al. (2001) who reported negative effects
ried rather than cohabiting mothers are sometimes of parental cohabitation. One explanation may be
advantaged, although this is not consistent across that we explain our negative effects of parental
all outcomes. At the bivariate level, teenagers liv- cohabitation on delinquency and grade point av-
ing with married stepfamilies experience more erage by mothers marriage history, a variable that
positive behavioral and academic outcomes (ex- is not included in the data set used by Nelson et
cept school problems), than teens living in cohab- al.
iting stepfamilies. Yet, at the multivariate level, We attempt to capture the fluidity and stability
many of the observed family structure differences of families. Our core measure of family stability,
can be explained by the covariates in our models. the number of the mothers prior marriage-like re-
Differences in delinquency attributable to cohab- lationships (during the childs lifetime), is an im-
itation and marital status, however, cannot be ex- portant contributor to childrens well-being. Moth-
plained by the factors included in our model. Ad- ers relationship history is related to many
Adolescent Well-Being 891

adolescent outcomes. In fact, this measure ex- structure of families, but also for the nature of
plains differences in delinquency and low grade relationships that exist within and across house-
point average among teenagers living with cohab- holds. Another measure, which could be consid-
iting stepfathers and single mothers. This is con- ered to be part of family life socialization, is re-
sistent with researchers who emphasize the im- ligiosity, and we observe similar levels across
portance of family stability rather than family family types. We find that the teens who were
structure for predicting child well-being (Hao & more religious than other teens fared better in
Xie, 2001; Hill et al., 2001; Wu & Martinson, terms of behavior and academic outcomes, but
1993). We also evaluate whether family structure this variable does not explain the effects of family
effects differ according to duration of the rela- structure.
tionship. In stepfamilies, duration of the current This paper suffers from several shortcomings.
relationship is only related to college expectations. First, we employ cross-sectional data, so our find-
Perhaps the stability of the relationship reflects the ings are suggestive because longitudinal analyses
stepfathers willingness to provide financial assis- are necessary to accurately evaluate how parental
tance for college. This is similar to findings re- cohabitation or marriage causes changes in an ad-
ported by Hao and Xie (2001), that time spent in olescents well-being (see Hao & Xie, 2001). For
the current union is not associated with child mis- example, we may find that mothers with children
behavior. We find that family structure effects do who have greater behavior problems and poor
not differ according to duration of the stepparents school performance are more likely to cohabit
relationship, except for school problems. This than marry. Thus, there could be selection into
suggests that the effect of cohabitation is typically family types based on the adolescent behaviors. In
similar when stepfamilies first form and during a similar vein, the causal nature of the covariates
later years. is not clearly specified in our models. Our covar-
We try to account for economic status (moth- iates represent factors that may be related to entry
ers education and family income), and similar to into specific types of families (e.g., education or
prior studies find that economic circumstances are religiosity) as well as effects of family structure
associated with adolescent well-being (e.g., Dun- (e.g., income). We are not able to account for se-
can & Brooks-Gunn, 1997). These factors are par- lection in our models, but we believe that we have
ticularly important for understanding differences provided important baseline information about pa-
in the effect of cohabitation in stepfamilies. Most rental cohabitation and adolescent well-being.
of the bivariate differences based on parental mar- Second, some potentially important variables are
ital or cohabitation status in stepfamilies are ex- omitted from our analyses. Measures that tap into
plained by socioeconomic factors (e.g., family in- stepfamily processes, such as relationships with
come, race or ethnicity, mothers education, cohabiting stepfathers or parenting problems in
childs sex and age). Thus, the higher levels of stepparent families, are not available in the Add
mothers education and family income observed Health. As discussed above, stepfathers who are
in married stepfather families explains some of the cohabiting may face quite different parenting cir-
differences in child outcomes in stepfather fami- cumstances than stepfathers who are married. An-
lies. other factor that is associated with child well-be-
Our findings also speak to how parenting and ing and found to be important among cohabiting
the complexity of family influence childrens families is maternal depression (Brown, 2001).
lives. Parental control is not uniformly associated Unfortunately, measures of maternal depression
with better teenage outcomes, but this measure is are not included in the Add Health. Finally, our
not capturing early adolescent parenting and fo- measure of economic circumstances is far from
cuses narrowly on limit setting. With regard to ideal. There is a high level of missing data on
parental support, we find that closeness of teens family income in the Add Health. We hoped to
to their biological mothers and nonresident fathers alleviate this limitation by accounting for mothers
is positively related to many indicators of adoles- education, but acknowledge it is not a substitute
cent well-being and is more often a significant for income.
predictor of adolescent outcomes than parental The issue of cohabitation and child develop-
monitoring. Hence, our findings appear to be more ment has become more important as cohabitation
consistent with attachment than with social control has become an increasingly large part of chil-
theories of child development. Our work suggests drens family experiences (Bumpass & Lu, 2000;
that it is important to account not only for the Graefe & Lichter, 1999). The findings from this
892 Journal of Marriage and Family

paper represent an initial step toward understand- Brown, S. (2002). Child well-being in cohabiting fam-
ing the implications of parental cohabitation on ilies. In A. Booth & A. Crouter (Eds.), Just living
together: Implications of cohabitation for children,
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younger children and examines the well-being of NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
children born into cohabiting parent families is Buchanan, C. M., Maccoby, E. E., & Dornbusch, S. M.
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perspective as well as model the fluid nature of cance of marriage: Changing family life in the United
cohabiting unions. States. Paper presented at the Potsdam International
Conference, The Netherlands.
NOTE Bumpass, L., & Lu, H. (2000). Trends in cohabitation
and implications for childrens family contexts. Pop-
This research was supported in part by the Center for ulation Studies, 54, 2941.
Family and Demographic Research, Bowling Green Carlson, M., & Corcoran, M. (2001). Family structure
State University, which has core funding from the Na- and childrens behavioral and cognitive outcomes.
tional Institute of Child Health and Human Develop- Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 779792.
ment (R21 HD042831-01). This paper was presented at Chantala, K., & Tabor, J. (1999). Strategies to perform
the annual meeting of the American Sociological As- a design-based analysis using the Add Health data.
sociation in Annaheim, California, August 2001. The Chapel Hill, NC: Carolina Population Center, Uni-
authors have benefited from comments provided by par- versity of North Carolina.
ticipants at the Ohio State University Initiative in Pop- Coleman, M., Ganong, L., & Fine, M. (2000). Reinves-
ulation Research; the University of Chicago Alfred P. tigating remarriage: Another decade of progress.
Sloan Center on Parents, Children, and Work; the Office Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 12881307.
of Population Research at Princeton University; and the DeLeire, T., & Kalil, A. (2002). Good things come in
University of Texas Population Research Center. In ad- 3s: Single-parent multigenerational family structure
dition, Susan Brown, Larry Bumpass, Steven Demuth, and adolescent adjustment. Demography, 39, 393
Peggy Giordano, Monica Longmore, Laura Sanchez, 342.
Pamela Smock, and Susan Stewart have provided valu- Duncan, G., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (Eds.). (1997). Conse-
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from Add Health, a program project designed by J. Foundation.
Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Dunifon, R., & Kowaleski-Jones, L. (2002). Whos in
Harris, and funded by grant P01-HD31921 from the Na- the house? Race differences in cohabitation, single
tional Institute of Child Health and Human Develop- parenthood and child development. Child Develop-
ment, with cooperative funding from 17 other agencies. ment, 73, 12491264.
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