Sullen exchanges, inexplicable silences and broken curfews can be part of life for parents of teenagers, but could this period be also a stress-test for parents’ marriages? A new IZA Discussion Paper finds that parents of teenage daughters are more likely to separate than parents of teenage sons. We wanted to know more from the authors, IZA fellows Jan Kabatek and David Ribar of the Melbourne Institute.
What is the main finding of your paper?
Our research studied more than two million marriages in the Netherlands over twenty years and showed that divorce risks faced by Dutch couples are dependent on age and gender of their children. The risks increase with children’s ages up to the point when children reach adulthood, and parents of teenage daughters are at greater risk still.
Has this topic been researched before?
The associations between marital strains and children’s gender were first identified by American sociologists in the 1980s. Economic research followed later, and several studies in the United States have indeed found that parents with first-born girls are slightly more likely to divorce than parents with first-born boys. However, until now, there was no evidence from other developed countries which would confirm that daughters strained marriages, and the heterogeneity of the gender effect remained largely unexplored.
Your study uses registry data from the Netherlands. Why Dutch data?
Compared to the data used in most previous studies, the Dutch administrative records are advantageous in several ways. They allow us to analyze a very large pool of marriages, the sample selection issues are minimal, and the records themselves are exceptionally comprehensive. We can look at exact dates of weddings, births, and divorces and delve deeper than studies which relied on self-reports and people’s recollections. More importantly, the data also allow us to link all parents to their children and examine just how long after their birth the couples separated.
What was the most striking result?
We found that the gender effect does exist among the Dutch parents, however it is strictly confined to the teenage years. Up until the age of 12, the gender of the child has no influence on the divorce risks faced by the parents. It is only between the ages 13 and 18 that parents of first-born girls divorce more frequently than parents of first-born boys. This finding contrasts prior evidence from US censuses, which documented significant differences of divorce risks for American families with children aged 0-12.
How does the teenage effect translate into numbers?
Conditional on staying married throughout the first twelve years of the first-born’s life, the odds of divorce are 10.7% for parents of teenage boys, and 11.3% for parents of teenage girls. In relative terms, this means that parents with teenage daughters face 5% higher risks of divorce than parents with teenage sons. The effect peaks at the age of 15, when the risk faced by parents with daughters is almost 10% higher than the risk faced by parents with sons. In the following years, the differences narrow again, and they disappear once the child turns 19. A similar pattern is also found among second-born and subsequent children.
Does this mean that Dutch parents have a preference for sons?
We don’t think so. The null finding for families with young children goes against the standard son-preference hypothesis, which implies that the mere presence of male children would make the marriage stronger. Furthermore, son preference would also influence fertility levels, rendering them higher for families with first-born girls. However, similar to recent US evidence reported in another recent IZA discussion paper, we find the exact opposite: families with first-born girls have slightly fewer children than families with first-born boys.
So what are the reasons why daughters might raise divorce risks?
We do not find evidence supporting several other well-established arguments, such as the theory which assumes that boys are more vulnerable and their need of male role models makes fathers more committed to the marriage. The same is the case for a sex-selection theory which postulates that mothers whose marriages are more stressful may be more likely to give birth to a baby girl.
Instead, our findings suggest that the higher divorce rates are explained by strains in the relationships between some parents and their teenage daughters, possibly stemming from differences in attitudes to gender roles. This explanation is backed by analysis of a large survey of Dutch households, which asked families about their relationships and opinions regarding marriage, gender and parenting.
What did the families say?
Parents of teenage daughters disagreed more about the way they should raise their children, and expressed more positive attitudes towards divorce. They were also less satisfied with the quality of their family relationships. Teenage daughters, in turn, reported worse relationships with their fathers, though not with their mothers.
Dads just don’t connect with their daughters?
Such a statement would be taking the empirics too far. Our findings do, however, suggest that the relationship of the father and his daughter is an important piece of the puzzle.
In one exercise, we split the administrative sample into two groups, depending on whether the father did or did not grow up with a sister. Our hypothesis was that the fathers who had more experience relating to teenage girls via their sisters would experience fewer relationship strains with their own teenage daughters. This could occur because fathers with sisters may hold more egalitarian attitudes towards gender roles, or because they have a better understanding of teenage girls and their family interactions.
In line with this reasoning, we found that the fathers who grew up with sisters did not face any increase in divorce risks from teenage daughters. The gender effect only appeared among fathers who grew up without sisters.
Do other family characteristics play a role?
We looked at other characteristics that could indicate differences between the gender-role attitudes held by the parents and their daughters, such as the ages or immigration background of the couple. Here, we also found that the parents who are likely to hold more traditional attitudes towards gender-roles experienced higher increases of divorce odds from teenage daughters.
Are the increased odds of divorce from teenage daughters unique to Dutch married couples?
It doesn’t seem so. We find the same associations for Dutch couples in de facto relationships, and our analysis of the Current Population Survey confirmed their existence also among married couples in the US. Importantly, we show that while we cannot reject the existence of a small gender effect for US families with children aged 0-12, we can demonstrate that such an effect is clearly dominated by the disparity that emerges in the teenage years. Compared to the previous estimates of the gender effect for US families with young children, the teenage effect derived from the CPS data is more than ten times larger. It is also substantially larger than the teenage effect found in the Dutch data.
So should parents of girls be worried they might be destined for divorce?
Not really. Despite their relative significance during the teenage years, the differences in the divorce risks faced by families with boys and girls remain modest over the child’s lifetime. By the time their first-born children reached age 25, 311 of every 1,000 Dutch couples with daughters had divorced, which can be compared to 307 of every 1,000 with sons—a difference of only 4 divorces per 1,000 couples.
Furthermore, the finding of a null effect among fathers who grew up with sisters shows that the association between the children’s gender and divorce risk is not universal. That being said, our study does point to serious strains between some parents and their teenage daughters, and help us understand the factors contributing to family break-down.
What can parents do to reduce these risks?
Our results suggest that parents of teenage daughters would do well to adopt more egalitarian attitudes towards gender roles and a greater understanding of how conflicts could come up. Struggles with teenagers will still happen, but better preparation and knowledge of the wants and needs of their teenage daughters could reduce the strain between partners.
Providing our children with role models who have modern attitudes toward gender roles, and promoting open communication within the family unit may contribute to a lowering of the rate of divorce or separation.
Thank you very much!
Download the paper (IZA DP No. 11046): Teenage Daughters as a Cause of Divorce