Parental debt impacts child well-being

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It’s hard to find too many people who aren’t in debt. Home mortgages, credit card balances, student loans—these are realities of modern American life, especially for beleaguered parents of young children.

There is no doubt that mothers and fathers tell themselves that they go into debt for the sake of their offspring – to provide them with goods and experiences that the family could not otherwise afford. But are they harming their children in the process?

Recently published research suggests that they very well could be. It all depends on the type of debt contracted by the parents.

In a large-scale, longitudinal study of more than 9,000 children, unsecured debt – that is, credit card balances and unpaid medical bills – was “positively and significantly associated with child behavior problems. children”.

Investing in your family’s future can be good for your children. But living beyond your means can have the opposite effect.

“Higher levels of mortgages and education were associated with greater socio-emotional well-being for children,” the researchers write in the February issue of the journal. Pediatrics. “This suggests that debt is not universally harmful to children’s well-being, particularly if used to invest in a home or in education.”

Lawrence Berger, director of the Institute for Poverty Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and sociologist at Dartmouth College Jason Houle analyzed data from 9,011 children and their mothers who participated in the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Study on Youth. Information on household debt and child behavior problems was collected every two years, when the children were between 5 and 14 years old.

Specifically, each mother was asked if her child had indulged in any of the 28″problematic behaviors. These included “sudden mood swings”, “cheating, lying”, “can’t concentrate”, “bullying” and “impulsive”.

Household debt has been broken down into four categories: mortgages or home equity loans; student loans; automobile loans; and “unsecured debt,” which includes credit card debt, medical debt, and other amounts owed “to businesses, individuals, or banks.”

The researchers found that higher total debt was associated with poorer child behavior, but this association varied by type of family debt.

“Specifically, higher levels of mortgage debt and education were associated with greater socio-emotional well-being for children,” they write, “while higher levels and increases in debt not guarantee were associated with lower levels and lower levels of , (their) well-being.”

This association remained significant after controlling for factors such as maternal marital status and education level, household size, and household income.

The results suggest that credit cards and other unsecured debt “may reflect limited financial resources to invest in children and/or parental financial stress.” In contrast, home loan and student loan debt suggest a parental impulse to improve their job prospects and perhaps relocate to a better, more child-friendly neighborhood.

“Our results suggest that unsecured debt, and perhaps the financial deregulation policies that precipitated the increase in debt, are linked to lower socio-emotional development for children,” the researchers conclude. “This is concerning,” they add, given that these issues have been “linked to a range of adverse effects across the lifespan.”

They suggest health care providers could “flag overdue medical bills and include items about debt issues on intake forms. be referred to a financial coach or a community organization. »

So investing in your family’s future, even if it means going into debt, can be good for your children. But living beyond your means, when it doesn’t reflect that kind of forward-looking mindset, can have the opposite effect.

It seems like giving in to your kid’s desire to own that Xbox isn’t worth the trade-off – if you have to go into more debt to buy it and, as a result, you’re a stressed, less present parent.


Results is a daily chronicle of Pacific Standard writer Tom Jacobs, who scours psychological research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the culture of creativity.

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