Princeton Professor Addresses Fragile Families

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    By Jessica Mallard

    The second annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture took place Thursday evening, Feb. 9, 2006, where Sara McLanahan, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton, addressed the myths and realities surrounding “fragile families.”

    McLanahan said she felt honored to address this subject. She began by defining “fragile families” as a family that consists of unmarried couples who have a child together. Today over 35 percent of children are born into these types of families.

    Her studies have shown that unmarried couples struggle in many areas that married couples do not and this inevitably affects the entire family. Although low income and poverty are issues these families face, maintaining stability within the home is a primary challenge.

    Stability in the home involves a lot more than just financial stability, she said. Trust and support are two crucial elements that denote stability, which is defined as “social capital.”

    The Fragile Families Study took a sample of 5,000 new births. They then conducted interviews with mothers and fathers at the time of their baby”s birth. To their surprise they found that 60 percent of the interviews with the fathers took place at the hospital. Follow-up interviews were conducted as well when the children were 1, 3 and 5 years old.

    After conducting this study, McLanahan and her colleagues addressed some of the common myths pertaining to families.

    One common myth proven false is that unmarried parents are just like married parents except for their social status.

    “Unmarried parents are coming from a very different universe,” she said. “They just have a lot more going against them than married parents do.”

    McLanahan said many unmarried couples engage in “multi-partner fertility,” which deals with unmarried couples who are having children with multiple partners. The end result is a household full of children with different fathers, she said.

    “We are trying to get at this problem much earlier,” she said.

    Another common myth is that fragile families involve partners who are uncommitted and that women do not know who is the father of their child. These myths are also false, McLanahan said.

    “The birth of the child is a very important time in the life of the couple,” she said. “It brings a new hope and new beginning. This magic moment with the child could be a great motivator.”

    As a result of this study, McLanahan and her colleagues are striving to establish a model program that builds strong families.

    For students who would like to learn more about this project, they can visit fragilefamilies.princeton.edu.

    The Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowed Chair was established to strengthen families, encourage the development of women, develop strategies relating to the challenges of parenting and conduct research on helping children with social development, acculturation and overcoming learning disabilities.

    In honor of Sister Hinckley, a commemorative DVD will be available to those visiting BYU. The DVD will enable visitors to be strengthened by her powerful example of faith, service and love. It is a tribute to her role as a mother and the inspirational life she led.

    Her sense of humor is evident throughout the DVD and is perhaps one of her most endearing traits. She said a loving bond is one of the bonds of society. She also addressed the problems in society and used them as opportunities.

    (For comments, e-mail Jessica Mallard at )

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