Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. What Are the Typical Family Structures of Teens?

10/01/2008

The family is the first environment in which youth experience adult relationships. Family composition and adult behaviors — such as the presence of one or both parents and the quality and stability of their relationships — have long-lasting consequences for youth. Past research has consistently shown, for example, that children whose parents divorce are more likely to divorce themselves (Amato 1996; Teachman 2002). Similarly, women born to unmarried mothers are more likely to have a nonmarital birth (Maynard 1996). Many factors related to family composition, such as income, parenting practices, and stress, could increase the likelihood that teens will have some of the same outcomes as their parents. In addition, the family structure in which children are raised is most familiar, and thus may seem a natural or normal choice when they later form their own families. In this section, we describe the family composition of teens, highlighting relevant differences by gender, race, ethnicity, and income group.

  • Overall, half of teens live with their married, biological parents. African Americans, low-income youth, and girls are less likely to live with both biological parents; Midwestern and rural teens are more likely.

Teenagers live in a mix of family structures. Among the 15- to 18-year-olds in our sample, 63 percent lived with two married parents — 50 percent with married biological parents and 13 percent with remarried parents (Table II.1). About one in four lived with a single parent. According to the teens, most of these single-parent families were headed by divorced, separated, or widowed parents who had not remarried. Less than 10 percent of teens lived with neither biological parent.


Table II.1
Family Composition of Teens Ages 15 to 18

(Percentages)
  All Teens White African
American
Hispanic
Two parents
   Married biological parents 50 55* 24* 50
   Remarried 13 14* 12 10*
   Cohabiting (biological or step) 3 2* 4* 4*
Single parent
   Ever married 23 21* 28* 23
   Never married 3 1* 15* 3
   No biological parent 8 7* 16* 9

Source: NLSY97, 1999 wave. Results are weighted to be representative of the 1999 United States population ages 15 to 18.

* Difference between the mean of the specified race/ethnicity and other races/ethnicities significant at the .05 level.

African American teens are much less likely to live with two married biological parents than teens from other racial and ethnic groups. For example, among the teens in our sample, 24 percent of African American teens lived with married biological parents, compared with 55 percent of white teens and 50 percent of Hispanic teens. For African American youth, the most common family arrangement was living with a single parent, with 43 percent reporting this family structure.

The likelihood of living with married biological parents is linked not only with race and ethnicity, but also with income. Among teens who reported family incomes more than two times the federal poverty level, 63 percent lived with their married biological parents (Figure II.1).(1) In contrast, the same was true for only 31 percent of lower-income teens. Racial differences remained pronounced even within income groups. For example, 33 percent of low-income white youth lived with married biological parents, compared to 15 percent of African American teens.


Figure II.1
Percentage of Teens Ages 15-18 Living with Married Biological Parents,
by Low-Income Status and Race/Ethnicity

Figure II.1 Percentage of Teens Ages 15-18 Living with Married Biological Parents, by Low-Income Status and Race/Ethnicity. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: NSLY 97, 1999 wage.

Note: Differences by income status are statistically significant at the .05 level for all groups presented.


The distribution of family structures for teens also varies by geographic location, with those living in the Midwest and in non-urban areas the most likely to live with two married biological parents. Among Midwestern teens, 55 percent lived with their married biological parents, compared with 52 percent of those in the Northeast, 50 percent of those in the West, and 45 percent of those in the South (not shown). Similarly, 55 percent of teens living in rural areas lived with two married biological parents, compared with 48 percent of teens living in more urban areas. These geographic differences are related to racial and ethnic differences in family structure. However, the higher proportion living with married biological parents in the Midwest and in rural areas persists even when we adjust for the racial and ethnic distribution of teens across geographic areas.

Girls are less likely than boys to live with married biological parents. The differences were relatively small (48 percent of girls compared to 52 percent of boys), but statistically significant. Other work corroborates this somewhat unexpected finding. In particular, one recent study found that parents with girls are more likely to be divorced and women with daughters only are more likely to have never married (Dahl and Moretti 2004). The authors asserted that this result reflected a preference for sons among fathers, who reported by more than a two-to-one margin that they would rather have a boy than a girl (Dahl and Moretti 2004). It may also suggest that mothers of boys may be more willing to marry and stay married to the fathers of their children than mothers of girls are, since they may consider the presence of a male role model particularly important for boys.

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