In Brief

Very young children of mothers with high income and education levels are largely unscathed by parental separation and divorce relative to young children of financially unstable, less educated mothers, suggests recent research--consistent with previous research findings of a link between lower parental income and poorer child functioning.

The research examined the effects of parental separation on children ages0 to 3--a group in which the impact of separation has been largely overlooked compared with older children. Lead researcher K. Alison Clarke-Stewart, PhD, of the University of California­ Irvine, sought to find whether the social, emotional and cognitive toll that's found among older children of divorced parents is also evident among infants and toddlers from broken homes.

That mostly depends on socioeconomic status, she found.

"It's not the separation per se that affects children negatively," says Clarke-Stewart. "It's family income and mothers' emotional well-being that are important."

To reach that finding, Stewart and her research team analyzed data from the longitudinal Study of Early Child Care being conducted by the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Clarke-Stewart's study focused on 340 economically and ethnically diverse mothers of newborns, of whom 73 were single, 97 had divorced or separated from the baby's father by the time the child reached 36 months and 170 stayed married.

The researchers analyzed the mothers' psychological health, income and education levels and their children's cognitive, social and behavioral functioning. They also watched videotapes of mother-child interactions to gauge positive or negative attachment and engagement patterns.

The researchers found that children from two-parent families performed best on all the measures. But when they controlled for mothers' income and education levels, the two-parent edge mostly disappeared. Only slightly reduced cognitive functioning remained among children of separated mothers, and those children generally fared better across measures than children of never-married mothers.

Also, the more educated mothers were, the less depressed they were, the more positive their interactions with their children and the less authoritarian their parenting style--all factors that appeared to bolster children's functioning.

The findings appear in the current issue of the Journal of Family Psychology (Vol. 14, No. 2). To Clarke-Stewart, they indicate that if a "mother can stand on her own two feet without the father's income, she and her children won't suffer negative effects. But if the money goes along with dad, mothers get depressed and their children aren't as well off."