Children of unmarried parents who live with their mothers and receive court-mandated financial support from their fathers exhibit more aggressive behavior than those who don’t get any formal support at all, according to a new Rutgers University study.
Researcher Lenna Nepomnyaschy, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, also found that 5-year-old children have increased cognitive skills when there is an informal agreement between the mother and father to provide some financial support.
“This is definitely a puzzling result that needs to be examined further,” said Nepomnyaschy. “Maybe these [court-directed] fathers are violent, have problems with drugs, spank the children, or have bad relationships with the mother. We don’t have a definitive answer.”
“We want to be careful and not say that formal support is bad,” said Nepomnyaschy, who worked on the study published in Social Service Review with researchers from the University of Wisconsin. “For most mothers it is hugely important. But it might not be working for all types of families.”
While previous research focused on how financial support affected the children of divorced parents, nearly 40 percent of children born today have parents who are not married, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Never-married mothers represent the largest proportion of single-parent families in the United States, the researcher noted.
The latest research, which uses data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, indicates that for young children of unmarried parents an informal agreement between the mother and father — as well as the father being involved in the child’s life — might lead to a better emotional environment.
“One possible reason why children whose fathers provide informal support might be exhibiting better vocabulary, verbal skills and scholastic aptitude is that these fathers not only give money to the mother when they can, but they also come around and are more involved in the child’s life,” Nepomnyaschy said.
According to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, only 20 percent of unmarried fathers not living with their children paid formal child support by the time the child was 3 years old, while 40 percent provided informal support. Many of these low-income fathers are out of work and struggling to make ends meet, Nepomnyaschy noted.
Researchers found that providing some informal support — more than $700 in two years — was associated with an increase in the cognitive skill levels of the children.
However, when these fathers were mandated to provide support through the courts, children who received low levels of formal support — below $1,800 over two years — exhibited more aggressive behaviors than children the same age who were not getting any formal support from their fathers.
Researchers believe that low-income fathers and mothers may prefer informal support because, in many states, if the mother is receiving food stamps or welfare, the support check paid by the father is kept by the state. Nepomnyaschy noted that informal support also often gives the father better leverage over visitation, child-rearing, and the ability to monitor how the money is spent.
“It is likely that unmarried mothers only go after formal support when their romantic relationship ends or when the father’s informal support stops,” she said.
She believes that more research is needed to determine whether these findings hold up as children get older.
“We may find that the importance of formal child support to a child’s well-being increases in the long term,” she said. “But it is important to look at how we incentivize these fathers to get involved in ways other than just providing formal support when these children are still young.”