, Volume 46, Issue 1, pp 85-101

Family boundary ambiguity and the measurement of family structure: the significance of cohabitation

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We used data from the first wave of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to examine family boundary ambiguity in adolescent and mother reports of family structure and found that the greater the family complexity, the more likely adolescent and mother reports of family structure were discrepant. This boundary ambiguity in reporting was most pronounced for cohabiting stepfamilies. Among mothers who reported living with a cohabiting partner, only one-third of their teenage children also reported residing in a cohabiting stepfamily. Conversely, for those adolescents who reported their family structure as a cohabiting stepfamily, just two-thirds of their mothers agreed. Levels of agreement between adolescents and mothers about residing in a two-biological-parent family, single-mother family, or married stepfamily were considerably higher. Estimates of the distribution of adolescents across family structures vary according to whether adolescent, mother, or combined reports are used. Moreover, the relationship between family structure and family processes differed depending on whose reports of family structure were used, and boundary ambiguity was associated with several key family processes. Family boundary ambiguity presents an important measurement challenge for family scholars.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America, New York, March 2007. The research for this article was supported by a grant to the rst author from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (K01-HD42478-02) and by the Center for Family and Demographic Research, Bowling Green State University, which has core funding from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (R24-HD050959-01). This research uses data from the Add Health project, a program project designed by J. Richard Udry (PI) and Peter Bearman, and funded by Grant P01-HD31921 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to the Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with cooperative funding from 17 other agencies. Persons interested in obtaining data files from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health should contact Add Health, Carolina Population Center, 123 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516-2524 (http://www.cpc.unc.edu/addhealth). The authors thank Lynne Casper, Shannon Cavanagh, I-Fen Lin, Laura Sanchez, Seth Sanders, Jennifer Van Hook, Zhenmei Zhang, and the anonymous Demography reviewers for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.