It is always comforting to think that statistics are unimpeachable and offer us the kind of stability and rational, objective approach to life we feel we so often need, and this ‘new’ research entitled “Life Gets under Your Skin”, from University College London (and we put the word ‘new’ in parentheses because it is not really new) which suggests that married life is better for children and that parents who work don’t affect the welfare of their children, will certainly comfort the pro-marriage and ultra-conservative classes, but is it an accurate reflection of the reality and does this research really constitute an iron clad view of what’s best for children? We read the report to find out.

What we discovered is that the report is not really focused on family law related concerns – it is an entire body of work which is evolving at the university, on lifestyles and the interplay between our environment and our biology. There are other research bodies doing the same thing (a quick Google search shows thousands of reports and research in this field), but this report looks at family, child welfare, environment, employment and old age. Our main interest in the report therefore, although we read the whole, was on the sections relating to family and child welfare.

We found that one of the biggest problems with this report is that the evidence says one thing, yet the editors of the report say another. It’s a spin on empirical data, something we see often with stats, but it’s worrying in this case because it gives the distinct impression that the report was commissioned by pro-marriage lobbyists and in a world where family units are so diverse, data is being manipulated to shrink our perspective: it is being used as a means to an end. And this report is filled with niggling discrepancies.

A bit like a Tory manifesto, it expounds the virtues of marriage (not conflict-free homes or stable relationships that last for years) and goes on to say that even if both parents work, their research suggests children do not suffer any effects from that. Alarm bells are sure to go off amongst those of us who know children who have felt very alone as a result of two parents working – sometimes, the parents simply have to, to ensure there is food on the table, but to claim that this does not affect children is naive and dangerous, and far too broad a generalisation for such an esteemed university to make.

The second point is actually embedded in the report itself. The exact text is reprinted below:

“When young people whose mothers were in paid work during their childhoods
reach adolescence, they are less likely to report poor general health, to have poor mental health or to be a smoker than those whose mothers were not in paid
work. But this is only true for those who grew up in better-off households with more highly educated mothers. In less well-off households, it makes
no difference to adolescents’ smoking or general physical health if their mothers have been in paid employment. And in these households, the more years the mothers spend in paid work during their offspring’s childhoods, the greater the tendency for those children to have poor mental health during adolescence.”

As we can see, working parents have nothing to do with an improvement in child welfare or health. Quality of life as a significant player is also glaringly present in this research – the children who suffer the most are not from ‘broken’ homes (we really dislike that term) or cohabiting partners, but those who live in deprived areas and whose parents struggle. So the assertion, emblazoned in the report as a topic header “The most beneficial environment for children appears to be a stable household with two parents who are both in paid work”, is a lie. The reality is far more nuanced. We are really looking at the effects of deprivation, which are not really about marriage or money in isolation, but at their core, relate to our environment. Ironically, this is also a point the research makes, but clumsily keeps harking back to married life as the answer, and surprisingly, doesn’t even mention domestic violence and the part separation plays in safeguarding children in such environments.

Despite large oversights, the effect of quality of life comes through in this report, again and again, and in fact the report when read thoroughly makes a strong case for focusing not on basic concepts of income or marital status, but quality of life itself – giving children the opportunity to grow up in a home environment where thy are comfortable. And whilst economics plays a part, it is not so much about the parents going out to work, but about parents being able to choose how they work, to elect to work in a way which suits the family and to have one or both parents at home, another point the research fails to tackle. In short, happy children come from tailored homes, not homogeneous environments where two married, working parents and a white picket fence are the only acceptable ways to nurture a child and watch them thrive.

Moving on to the rest of the report, which feels more and more like a Tory Party Memo as you read on, we have the section about making sure young adults are encouraged to work and qualify for skills which they may need later on in life, so that they can learn to be responsible and thrive in a meritocracy. Oh, our mistake, the bit about the meritocracy isn’t part of the report, though we could have sworn we saw it there…. however the report simply oscillates from claiming that well-educated and motivated children fare better in the Third Reich, we mean in adolescence, than their poorer teenage counterparts who take on too much in the way of responsibility and work roles, too young. It also goes on, at length, about the benefits of employment, family and friendship. But none of this is news. It’s common sense. So, what does this segment of the report tell us? That children need a good work-life balance. This isn’t cutting edge research likely to shake the very foundations of science, but it does take on the guise of an ominous political agenda. We don’t know if this was intended, but the presentation of the data to our mind is dangerous, because the report itself is confused and, we feel, not nuanced enough to really get to grips with the main issues.

A further section on stress in childhood also goes to talk about how trauma during childhood years (like those experienced via divorce) are likely to affect adults and even manifest in their thirties, causing mental health and physical problems. But the report also says that it is hard to measure what causes stress. Indeed, it is. And the latest research suggests that every child reacts differently to stress. Taking divorce as an example, it has now been established that children’s own genetic make-up play a large part in how they will fare during their parents’ divorce. Homogeneous solutions just aren’t going to cut it.

So what does all this tell us – that the research is flawed, amounts to little and has been, most probably, a rather large and futile drain on financial resources? Perhaps, but it’s horrible to have to admit that your research has been fruitless. Though, to our mind, it’s quite dishonest to suggest families are placing their children in harm’s way, when in most cases, they are exercising their right to protect them.

To be fair to the report, it is a starting off point and sounding board, and the editors are encouraging feedback on their findings. If you think the report is good and want to get in touch, you can do so at icls@ucl.ac.uk. If you feel the report could do with some help, put your money where your mouse is.