Children, Youth and Families

Dalton Conley • Kathryn Edin • Jean Grossman • Sara F. McLanahan • Sanyu A. Mojola • Timothy J. Nelson • Patrick T. Sharkey • Marta Tienda


Thomas Laidley (New York University) and Dalton Conley published, “The Effects of Active and Passive Leisure on Cognition in Children: Evidence from Exogenous Variation in Weather,” in Social Forces. Leisure time activity is often positioned as a key factor in child development, yet relatively little is known about the causal significance of various specific activities or the magnitude of their efforts. The authors couple individual fixed effects and instrumental variable approaches in trying to determine whether specific forms of leisure contribute to gains in test performance over time. They merge a restricted access version of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) Child Development Supplement (CVS), longitudinally collected from 1997 to 2007, with a database of over three million county-day observations of sunlight. They use this proxy for weather to instrument for the variation in physical, outdoor, sedentary, and screen-time behaviors based on CDS time diaries. They find evidence that physical and outdoor activity positively influence math performance, while sedentary behavior and screen time exhibit the opposite effect. Moreover, the effect sizes range from a fifth to more than half a standard deviation per additional daily hour of activity, rendering them meaningful in a real-world sense. The stratified results indicate that children from less educated mothers and girls seem to be most sensitive to the effects of active and passive forms of leisure. They conclude with a descriptive examination of the trend lines between their data and the new 2014 CDS cohort, providing relevant contemporary context for their findings.

Heather Hahn (Urban Institute), Daniel Kuehn (Urban Institute), Hannah Hassani (Urban Institute), and Kathryn Edin published a research report entitled, “Relief from the Government-Owed Child Support Debt and Its Effects on Parents and Children,” through the Urban Institute. In this report the authors evaluated the San Francisco Child Support Debt Relief Pilot. The authors found that most of the money many low-income Californians pay for child support does not reach their children; instead, it reimburses the government for public assistance their children have received. In California, 40 percent of child support payments are for debt owed to the government. The child support debt relief pilot tested what would happen if 100 percent of the funds went directly to the children, rather than the government? What benefits would accrue to children and parents? The results are clear. When parents’ public assistance debt is paid off, so 100 percent of their payments, children receive more financial support, parents’ employment barriers are reduced, and parents’ housing status and credit scores often improve. Parents’ relationships with each other and their children also improve.

In “Taking Care of Mine: Can Child Support Become a Family-Building Institution?” published in the Journal of Family Theory and Review, Kathryn Edin, Timothy Nelson, Rachel Butler (Johns Hopkins University), and Robert Francis (Johns Hopkins University) report that U.S. children are more likely to live apart from a biological parent than at any time in history. Although the Child Support Enforcement system has tremendous reach, its policies have not kept pace with significant economic, demographic, and cultural changes. Narrative analysis of in-depth interviews with 429 low-income noncustodial fathers suggest that the system faces a crisis of legitimacy. Visualization of language used to describe all forms of child support shows that the formal system is considered punitive and to lead to a loss of power and autonomy. Further, it is not associated with co-parenting or the father-child bond-themes closely associated with informal and in-kind support. Rather than stoking men’s identities as providers, the system becomes “just another bill to pay.” Orders must be sustainable, all fathers should have co-parenting agreements, and alternative forms of support should count toward fathers’ obligations. Recovery of government welfare costs should be eliminated.

Jean Grossman is an expert on programs serving disadvantaged youth, especially mentoring programs and out-of-school time programs (afterschool and summer programs). She has authored (with colleagues) over 15 reports on out-of-school time programming, including: An Analysis of the Effects of an Academic Summer Program for Middle School Students; Evaluation of Enhanced Academic Instruction in After-School Programs; Engaging Older Youth; Testing the Impact of Higher Achievement’s Year-Round Out-of-School Time Program on Academic Outcomes; Quality Time After School: What Instructors Can Do to Enhance Learning; and The Cost of Quality Out-of-School Time Programs, Quality Time After School.

Grossman authored two of the mentoring fields most seminal evaluations based on the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program: Making a Difference and Making a Difference in School. She also recently finished The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles; and Youth-Initiated Mentoring: Investigating a New Approach to Working with Vulnerable Adolescents. Along with Jean Rhodes and others, Grossman has also written a series of papers on the mechanisms of mentoring, exploring the role of the match length, re-matching and the quality of the relationship.

NIH clinical study of Friends of the Children (FOTC) (2007- ) FOTC identifies very high-risk children when they are very young (first grade) and matches them with a mentor (or Friend) who provides one-on-one support and guidance for an extended period of time (twelve years). Grossman (as co-PI) and her colleagues at the Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC) are conducting a randomized control trial evaluation of the program’s effects on the children’s behavior, health and wellbeing. She continues to head the cost study.


Rachel Goldberg (University of California, Irvine), Marta Tienda, Michelle Eilers (University of Texas, Austin), and Sara McLanahan published, “Adolescent Relationship Quality: Is there an Intergenerational Link?” in Journal of Marriage and Family. Tienda, McLanahan and colleagues examined intergenerational continuities in relationship instability, general relationship quality, and intimate partner violence (IPV) between mothers and adolescents. Using age 3,5,9, and 15 data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing birth cohort, they examined the associations between maternal reports of relationship instability, general quality, and IPV in early and middle childhood and similar adolescent reports at age 15. Variations based on the timing and persistence of exposures were considered. In general, exposures to low-quality maternal relationships were associated with a higher risk of forming adolescent partnerships and lower relationship quality. Intergenerational links in quality were predominately construct specific, consistent with observational learning processes. Adolescents exposed to maternal relationships of poor general quality in middle childhood were less likely to report high-quality relationships themselves, and those exposed to any maternal physical IPV victimization during childhood were more likely to perpetrate IPV in their own relationships. Exposure to maternal relationship instability in both early and middle childhood was associated with more adolescent romantic partners.

Sarah James (Cornell University), Louis Donnelly, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn (Columbia University), and Sara McLanahan published, “Links Between Childhood Exposure to Violent Contexts and Risky Adolescent Health Behaviors,” in Journal of Adolescent Health. Using data from 2,684 adolescents in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, McLanahan and her colleagues used logistic regression models to evaluate whether exposure to 6 indicators of community violence and 7 indicators of family violence at ages 5 and 9 is associated with risky sexual behavior, substance use, and obesity risk behavior at age 15. Controlling for a range of adolescent, parent, and neighborhood covariates, each additional point on the community violence scale is associated with 8% higher odds of risky sexual behavior but not substance use or obesity risk behavior. Alternatively, each additional point on the family violence scale is associated with 20% higher odds of substance use but not risky sexual behavior or obesity risk behavior. Childhood exposure to violent contexts is associated with risky adolescent health behaviors, but the associations are context and behavior specific. After including covariates, the researchers found no association between childhood exposure to violent contexts and obesity risk behavior.

Isabel Pike (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Sanyu Mojola, and Caroline W. Kabiru (African Population and Health Research Center) published “Making Sense of Marriage: Gender and the Transition to Adulthood in Nairobi, Kenya,” in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The objective of this study was to examine how young people in Nairobi, Kenya, are making sense of marriage, both in terms of their own lives and its social significance. In many sub-Saharan African communities, marriage has been a fundamental marker of the transition to adulthood. However, union formation is changing, particularly in urban areas—partnering is occurring later and nonmarital cohabitation is increasingly common with the pathways to union formation differing by gender. Young people's perspectives on marriage are valuable for a deeper understanding of these trends.

A total of 74 in-depth interviews with youth living in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, were qualitatively analyzed with particular attention to personal and normative understandings of marriage along with how they vary by gender.

The results showed that marriage emerged as an important part of most respondents' life projects, whether or not they considered it key to socially recognized adulthood. Attitudes differed by gender, with young women's greater ambivalence and aversion toward marriage, particularly early marriage, contrasting with young men's frustrated desire for marriage amidst economic constraints. Young men's main worry about marriage was not being able to support a family, whereas young women were often concerned that marrying would thwart their aspirations regarding education and work. Marriage continues to be a significant social marker of adulthood despite a shifting demographic reality. Differences in young people's attitudes are related to gendered concerns around marriage and economic independence.


Jenni Heissel (Northwestern University), Patrick Sharkey, Gerard Torrats-Espinosa (New York University), Kathryn E. Grant (DePaul University), and Emma K. Adam (Northwestern University) published “Violence and Vigilance: The Acute Effects of Community Violent Crime on Sleep and Cortisol,” in Child Development. The data of this study objectively measured sleep and thrice-daily salivary cortisol collected from a 4-day diary study in a large Midwestern city with location data on all violent crimes recorded during the same time period for N = 82 children (Mage = 14.90, range = 11.27-18.11). The primary empirical strategy used a within-person design to measure the change in sleep and cortisol from the person's typical pattern on the night/day immediately following a local violent crime. One of the conclusions was that on the night following a violent crime, children have later bedtimes. Children also have disrupted cortisol patterns the following morning. Supplementary analyses using varying distances of the crime to the child's home address confirm more proximate crimes correspond to later bedtimes.