May 23, 2022

Kevin DeYoung

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Eikon.

Humanly speaking, there is nothing more important for personal well-being, positive social behavior, and general success in life than being raised by one’s biological parents committed to each other in a stable marriage. Over the past forty years, a vast body of research has demonstrated conclusively that children are deeply affected by family structure and that married parents are best for children. Any efforts — whether governmental, educational, or ecclesiastical — that mean to encourage human flourishing must take this reality into account as both an explanation for many societal ills and as a means to the end of hoped-for societal health and vitality.

Not a Myth

Family life in America has changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time. In 1960, 73% of children lived with two parents in their first marriage. By 2014, less than half (46%) of children were living in this type of family. Conversely, the percentage of children living with a single parent rose from 9% in 1960 to 26% in 2014. An additional 7% of children now live with cohabiting parents. Moreover, the increase in non-traditional family arrangements has coincided with the decoupling of marriage and childbearing. In 1960, just 5% of all births occurred outside of marriage. By 2000, around 40% of all births occurred outside of marriage (a percentage that has held steady over the last twenty years). As of 2014, 29% of births to white women, 53% of births to Hispanic women, and 71% of births to black women were out-of-wedlock. In the span of only 60 years, what were once considered exceptional family circumstances have become the norm.[1]

Given the changing portrait of the American family, it is not surprising that many people believe — or, given the uncomfortable prospect of implicitly judging others, feel compelled to say they believe — that there is no difference between one parent or two parents when it comes to raising children. According to one online survey, “more than 70% of participants believed that a single parent can do just as good a job as two parents.” Further, 60% of women “agreed that children do best with multiple adults invested and helping, but that two married parents are not necessary.”[2] Christina Cross, writing in the New York Times, went so far as to decry “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home,” citing evidence that black children in two-parent families still fare worse than white children in two-parent families.[3] But Cross’s argument fails to take into account how much better all children do in two-parent families compared to one-parent families of the same race. The percentage of white children living in poverty goes from 31% in families with only a mother, to 17% in families with only a father, all the way down to 5% in families with a married couple. The same percentages for black children go from 45% (mother-only), to 36% (father-only), to 12% (married couple). We can lament that black children in two-parent families are still 2.4 times more likely to be in poverty than white children (12% v. 5%), but we should also observe that white children raised by only a mother are 2.6 times as likely to be in poverty as black children raised by two parents (31% v. 12%). While there are still advantages to being white in this country, he much bigger advantage is being raised by two parents. It is better in America to be a black child raised by two parents than to be a white child in a one-parent home. The breakdown of the family is not a black problem; it is a problem wherever two-parent families decline and single-parent households become normalized.[4]

Family Structure and Child Well-Being

The conclusion that children raised by their biological, married parents do better, by almost every measure,  has been proven in hundreds of studies over the last several decades.[5]

One of the best and most concise summaries of the academic literature comes from a policy brief published in 2003 by the Center for Law and Social Policy.[6] Citing a 1994 study by Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, the 2003 brief notes that children who do not live with both biological parents were roughly twice as likely to be poor, to have birth outside of marriage, to have behavioral and psychological problems, and to not graduate from high school.[7] Another study found that children in single-parent homes were more likely to experience health problems, such as accidents, injuries, and poisonings.[8] Other research found that children living with single mothers were five times as likely to be poor.[9]

Importantly, not all types of single-parent households fare the same. Children of widowed parents, for example, do better than children in families with divorced or cohabiting parents.[10] Children of divorce are two-and-a-half times as likely to have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems as children from intact families.[11] Likewise, children in cohabiting families are at a higher risk of poor outcomes in a host of economic and emotional categories. Critically, these poor outcomes are not erased when the single-parent family is better off financially.[12] Marriage is the issue, not economics. In short,

Research indicates that, on average, children who grow up in families with both their biological parents in a low-conflict marriage are better off in a number of ways than children who grow up in single-, step- or cohabiting-parent households. Compared to children who are raised by their married parents, children in other family types are more likely to achieve lower levels of education, to become teen parents, and to experience health, behavior, and mental health problems. And children in single- and cohabiting-parent families are more likely to be poor.[13]

An updated analysis comes from the Fall 2015 issue of the journal The Future of Children.[14] In their introduction to the issue, Sara McLanahan and Isabel Sawhill take it as a given that “most scholars now agree that children raised by two biological parents in a stable marriage do better than children in other family forms across a wide range of outcomes.”[15]Even with this consensus, there is still disagreement about why marriage is so important. In his article in the same journal, David Ribar analyzes a number of possible mechanisms that make marriage so effective: economic resources, specialization, father involvement, parents’ physical and mental health, parenting quality and skills, social support, health insurance, home ownership, parental relationships, bargaining power, family stability, net wealth, borrowing constraints, informal social networks, and the efficiencies of married life. Ribar concludes that while these factors often play a role in the benefits of marriage, the advantages of marriage are hard to replicate by augmenting these factors alone. In other words, “the advantages of marriage for children appear to be the sum of many, many parts” and as such the best policy interventions are “those that bolster marriages themselves.”[16]

More recently, Katy Faust and Stacy Manning have summarized much of the primary source research in their 2021 book Them Before Us: Why We Need a Global Children’s Rights Movement. Again, we find that children reared in intact homes do best on educational achievement, emotional health, familial and sexual development, and delinquency and incarceration.[17] Children living with a mother’s boyfriend are about eleven times more likely to be sexually, physically, or emotionally abused than children living with their married biological parents.[18] And children separated from one or both of their biological parents are 1.5 times as likely to experience financial difficulty, six times as likely to have witnessed neighborhood violence, fifteen times as likely to have witnessed caregiver or parent violence, eleven times as likely to have lived with a caregiver or parent with a drug or alcohol problem, and seventeen times as likely to have had a caregiver or parent in jail.[19] In short, there is virtually no measurement of well-being in which it is not a significant — indeed, often life altering — advantage to be raised by one’s biological (and married) father and mother.

In Support of Children (and the Future)

As Christians, of course, our ultimate confidence does not rest in the findings of social science research. We know from the Bible that God created one man and one woman to enter into the covenant of marriage (Gen 2:18–25), and that from this conjugal union God desires children to be produced (Mal 2:15), and that these children are a blessing to their parents (Ps 127:3) and ought to be brought up by their mother and father in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:1–4). Scientific research is valuable insofar as it can reinforce the truths of the Bible and principles of natural law; namely, that when we observe the way the world works (and does not work), it becomes abundantly clear that marriage matters for human flourishing almost more than anything else.

So what can we do to strengthen marriages and promote the well-being of children? Let me close with four brief suggestions.

First, pastors, Christian educators, parents, and church leaders need to do more to teach on this subject. I do not mean pre-marital counseling and marriage retreats, as important as those are. I mean we must teach more broadly about the crucial importance of marriage as both a personal and public good. Our culture promotes the message that every family arrangement is as good as another. That is simply not true. We need to help our people understand the reality and see what is at stake.

Second, we ought to encourage public policies that make pro-child marriages more attractive and less healthy family arrangements more difficult. So, for example, we should not penalize marriage by tying welfare benefits to singleness. We should make divorce harder, not easier (e.g., legislation that requires counseling before divorce can be finalized). We should consider tax benefits that reward marriage and childbearing. And we must dare to talk about fatherlessness as a leading factor (if not the leading factor) in the deterioration of cultural and family health among all races and ethnicities.

Third, we should consider how we have normalized behavior that harms children and does not lead to human flourishing.It may not be possible to change the wider culture in such a profound way, but we can start by looking at our own church culture. This may sound unloving at first, but we must re-stigmatize fornication and promiscuity, cohabitation, and no-fault divorce. Social approval for behaviors that used to be considered sinful (or at least inappropriate and unwise) has been a powerful force in changing the state of marriage in the West. Stigma often speaks louder than dogma. As Christians, we must find ways to lovingly help and forgive those who make mistakes, and especially those who suffer from the mistakes that others have made. I am not suggesting we stigmatize people, but we should stigmatize sinful behaviors. Everyone in the church today has been touched by divorce, sex before marriage, or out-of-wedlock births.[20]These are difficult subjects to talk about, but we must not bemoan the culture out there — with its sin-enticing, righteousness-denying, worldliness-normalizing ethos — while we are unwilling to deal with compromises in our own midst.

Fourth, unless called to singleness for kingdom purposes, we must encourage Christians to get married, have children, stay married, and raise those children in a stable two-parent family. Obviously, the ideal is not always possible. Divorce is not always our choice. Spouses sometimes die young. Marriage does not always come. Children do not always follow. That is why we believe in adoption, and second chances, and in God’s good plan in all things. But insofar as most people in the church will marry and have children, they need to hear that getting married, staying married, and raising children in the Lord is no small thing. In fact, it is one of the biggest and best things we can do — for the church, for the nation, and for the kingdom. After the gospel, there is no bigger gift you can give to the world than your children and no better gift you can give your children than to be raised by a mom and dad who love them and love each other.

Kevin DeYoung (Ph.D.) is Senior Pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina, and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. 


[1] These figures were taken from Pew Research Center, December 17, 2015, “Parenting in America: Outlook, worries, aspirations are strongly linked to financial situation.”

[2] Cited in Alysse ElHage, “When it Comes to Child Well-Being, Is One Parent the Same as Two?” Institute for Family Studies (September 7, 2017).

[3] Christina Cross, “The Myth of the Two Parent Home,” New York Times (December 9, 2019).

[4] These figures and this rebuttal to Cross come from Ian Rowe, “The Power of the Two-Parent Home Is Not a Myth,” Flypaper (January 8, 2020). Rowe notes that the percentage of births to unmarried women has grown most rapidly in recent years among white women.

[5] The term “biological” is used to distinguish between adoptive parents and step-parents. Citing testimony from Nicholas Zill in 1995, the article referenced below from the Center for Law and Social Policy claims that “Adopted children have very similar outcomes to children raised by both biological parents” ( n1). A new study, however, authored by Nicholas Zill and W. Bradford Wilcox concludes that adopted children, despite being placed with highly educated parents who have above-average incomes, exhibit more academic, behavioral, and mental health problems than children raised by their married biological parents. The last paragraph from the study is worth quoting in full: “There is little question that adopted children are better off than they would be in long-term foster or institutional care. At the same time, the survey data reveal the complex challenges adopted children face in overcoming the effects of early stress, deprivation, and the loss of the biological family. It is vital that current and potential adoptive parents be aware of the challenges they may face, as well as the eventual benefits that will accrue to them and the child as a result of the love and resources they provide and the struggles they endure.” Nicholas Zill and W. Bradford Wilcox, “The Adoptive Difference: New Evidence on How Adopted Children Perform in School,” Institute for Family Studies (March 26, 2018).

[6] Mary Parke, “Are Married Parents Really Better for Children?” Center for Law and Social Policy (May 2003).

[7] Ibid., 2–3.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Ibid., 4.

[12] Ibid., 5–6.

[13] Ibid., 8.

[14] “Marriage and Child Wellbeing Revisited” The Future of Children, 25:2 (Fall 2015).

[15] Sara McLanahan and Isabel Sawhill, “Marriage and Child Wellbeing Revisited: Introducing the Issue,” The Future of Children, 25:2 (Fall 2015), 4.

[16] David C. Ribar, Why Marriage Matters for Child Wellbeing,” The Future of Children, 25:2 (Fall 2015), 23.

[17] Katy Faust and Stacy Manning, Them Before Us: Why We Need a Global Children’s Rights Movement (New York: Post Hill Press, 2021), 31 (citing Ryan T. Anderson).

[18] Ibid., 37 (citing W. Bradford Wilcox).

[19] Ibid., 43 (citing a 2011–2012 study conducted by the CDC).

[20] Strictly speaking, Christians ought to stigmatize the behavior that leads to out-of-wedlock births (i.e., fornication, promiscuity), not the birth itself. When a woman becomes pregnant outside of marriage, the decision to have the child should be celebrated and encouraged.