Parents of boys less likely to divorce, professor says

If you want to avoid divorce, have male children. While that may be a bit of an oversimplification, couples with sons are 9 percent more likely to stay together than are couples with daughters, according to a University of Washington sociology professor.

“Research shows that the odds of staying married increase by 9 percent with each additional son,” growing to 18 percent with the second boy and 27 percent with the third, says Diane Lye.

The study, in which Lye collaborated with Philip Morgan of the University of Pennsylvania, is the first to investigate what role the sex of children plays in divorce.

Lye and Morgan based their study on 1980 census data. The results held for all races, socioeconomic levels of parents and ages of children.

Earlier studies have shown that children, in general, have a beneficial effect on preserving a marriage. “People do stay married for the sake of the kids—financially and out of concern for their children’s well-being.” In fact, the more children a couple has, the more likely they will stay married.

In the boy-versus-girl debate, “obviously, having a son is important,” Lye said, adding that from the marriage perspective, “Having one boy and one girl is more like having one boy. A girl child doesn’t have that big an effect on preserving a marriage.”

Lye and Morgan say it’s not accurate to assume that fathers prefer sons. What makes the difference is the social role the father perceives for himself, which leads him into much more involvement with a son than with a daughter. This social role, in turn, leads to his becoming more integrated with the family.

For instance, a father will often initiate activities with a son that he doesn’t think a daughter would be interested in, such as taking him to ball games, fishing or having him help work on the car. A man also will play more with sons as well as get more involved in their supervision, school activities and discipline. “It’s not something he consciously chooses to do. It’s a much more subtle indication of how gender roles influence our lives. It’s sad, but changeable; we can become more aware of how social roles affect our lives,” says the sociology professor.