Parent Histories: Patterns of Change in Early Life

Brian C. Martinson, Lawrence L. wu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Most studies that examine the effects of family structure have employed relatively crude measures, typically a snapshot of family intactness at age 14. In this article, we use data from the National Survey of Families and Households to examine (a) how one might better construct measures of family structure that reflect change during early life and (b) what analytical and empirical opportunities are available when the data provide a more complete parent history. We draw four conclusions. First, a substantial fraction of children have extremely diverse parental situations, even though the majority of children live in intact families. Snapshot measures understate greatly the dynamic complexities of a respondent's parental situation. Second, the parent histories of respondents provide a rich but complicated set of longitudinal data and the complexity of these data makes it infeasible to adopt a data-driven approach to summarize family structure over the early lives of children. It is therefore useful to adopt a more theoretical approach in identifying salient dimensions of a respondent's parent history. Third, existing theoretical perspectives conceptualize the influences of parents in markedly different ways. These contrasting views, in turn, imply quite distinct empirical measures. Finally, more informative measures of family structure may allow one to adjudicate between alternative hypotheses of family structure in ways not possible with snapshot measures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)351-377
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Family Issues
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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