Mum’s schooling, not marital status, affects family

A mother’s education trumps marriage or cohabitation when it comes to the wellbeing of children, a study reveals.

Children whose mothers only have a primary education are almost five times more likely to have low reading and maths scores than children of mothers with a postgraduate education.

Such children were also almost three times more likely to have poor social- emotional adjustment and twice as likely to have a chronic illness as children whose mothers have a college education.

Researchers at University College Dublin found that mothers with a lower secondary education or less were five to six times more likely to smoke and more than three times more likely to show symptoms of depression than those with a postgraduate education.

The study, conducted on behalf of the Family Support Agency, was based on a national representative sample of 8,568 children who were aged 9 in 2007/8 in the Government-funded Growing Up in Ireland survey.

Lead study author Tony Fahey, from UCD’s School of Applied Social Science, said the research showed it was more important for children’s well-being that they had well educated parents, particularly in the case of the mother, than they had parents who stayed together.

“Once we control for parents’ education and household living standards, our findings show only a slight or, in many cases, a complete absence of differences in the indicators of child wellbeing between children of two-parent married families, cohabiting families, step-families, and one parent families,” he said.

He pointed out that stability in couple relationships was weakest among the least educated parents and that families of the least educated parents were now smaller than the overall average — a significant reversal on the past historical situation.

The study found that 79% of children in Ireland live with both natural parents, 17.5% in lone parent families and 3% in step-families, which in nearly all cases was when the natural mother had formed a second union.

About one in five of never-married lone parents live with at least one grandparent, a feature that was positive for the parents’ wellbeing, though not necessarily for their children.

Mothers living with their child’s maternal grandparents were half as likely as others to suffer from depression or to smoke daily.

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