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How distance to a non-resident parent relates to child outcomes


Family courts now encourage both parents to maintain contact with their children following separation/divorce, believing this is in the child’s best interest. We use geographical distance between non-resident parents and their children to test how such distance is related to educational and behavioral outcomes within a population sample of children from nonnuclear families in Denmark. As this distance is a choice, non-resident parents may choose where to live in part based on expected child outcomes; results that fail to take endogeneity into account will be biased. We use instrumental variable techniques to control for this potential endogeneity. The results indicate educational outcomes are somewhat better for all and behavioral outcomes are at least no worse for girls who live at a greater distance from their non-resident parent. Failing to control for endogeneity seems to bias the results for behavioral outcomes in favor of more proximate parents. Thus, policy efforts to keep separated parents geographically closer for the sake of their children may in fact not be advantageous.

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  1. Children who have contact but whose parents are in conflict do have lower grades (Amato et al. 2011). Generally, the degree of conflict both before and after separation as well as the use of shared parenting techniques are significantly associated with child outcomes (Amato 2010).

  2. Greater distance may also reflect greater power in the hands of the residential parent and such power could be wielded to produce better child outcomes. Interpreting the results as a consequence of distance per se may in this case be inappropriate. That we control for each parent’s education level and earnings should help mitigate this possibility.

  3. Proximate non-resident fathers live in the same economic region as their child for more than 90 % of the time. In Norway, there are 46 economic regions, each with an average population of about 86,000 people.

  4. Cohabiting persons who share biological children are clearly identified by Statistics Denmark. Other adults are classified as cohabiting couples if they reside in the same household, are no more than fifteen years apart in age, are of opposite gender, and are not in any way related.

  5. Eight percent of the parents in our sample reunite. This number is in line with the 10 % rate at which formal divorces are annulled in Norway (Steele et al. 2009).

  6. Different distances are further investigated in the sensitivity analysis in Sect. 6.

  7. As we do not know the location of education acquired abroad, persons last educated abroad are included in our analysis only based on where in Denmark they received their education.

  8. Most notably children missing information are more likely not Danish, less likely to be first born, and more likely to have older and somewhat more educated parents. This is not surprising since education information for those completing their education before 1974 and for those obtaining all their education outside of Denmark originate from the Population and Housing Census and Immigration Census, respectively, and is self-reported and therefore likely imperfect (Jensen and Rasmussen 2011).

  9. In the case that pre-birth education is missing, post-birth values are used.

  10. Other techniques to control for endogeneity (given feasible data) include taking an individual or sibling fixed-effects approach, investigating growth curve models, using propensity score matching, or using lagged dependent variables (McLanahan et al. 2013). Sibling fixed-effects models are a common choice for studying educational outcomes, but Sigle-Rushton et al. (2014) show that this method can lead to biased results if all relevant factors are not taken appropriately into account.

  11. Remember, DBE measures distance between the municipalities where each parent last completed some education prior to separating, whereas DBHP uses distance between parents’ high school municipalities (if the information is available), else distance between last municipality of education.

  12. Testing the relation between these instrument values and household structure may be particularly important if partners who are educated apart are ‘stronger’, more independent minded types who are perhaps less similar to one another and therefore more likely to separate. DBE does not appear to be strongly indicative of such personality types.

  13. For completeness, IV estimates for the educational outcome are reported in the first column of Table 3. Results using instrument restricted samples to model educational outcomes without IV are similar to the results for the full estimation sample, but with larger standard errors as expected. Thus, the differences observed between the OLS and IV results are not a function of sample composition.

  14. This amounts to about 600 observations. However, our number of parents abroad is probably a lower bound as it only captures those who are registered as living abroad for a significant amount of time.

  15. The sample of children living only with their father is too small to provide meaningful results (sample size of only 446: 169 girls, 277 boys). However we find substantially similar results to those reported for children only living with mothers when we also include those only living with fathers.

  16. Exogeneity is not rejected at the 10 % level in the case of girls whose fathers’ have a high school education. The sample size in this case is very small.

  17. Uusitalo-Malmivaara and Lehto (2013) report qualitative differences in the predictors of happiness between genders. A great number of friends predicts high happiness for boys. For girls, instead, good relationships with other people (girl/boy friend, friends of the same sex, teachers, etc.) are related to high happiness. For both boys and girls, a small number of friends predicts low happiness. Disruptions of networks likely affect both the number of friends and the number of close ties.

  18. It is notable that some research in Denmark finds that even when parents sharing physical custody of a child are only a short distance apart, some children moving between their parents’ households report that they feel they are ‘living in a suitcase’. Furthermore, these children also have to adjust to household-specific rules and guidelines each time they move (Ottosen et al. 2011).


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Financial support from The Danish Social Science Research Council is gratefully acknowledged. We would like to thank participants at the seminar series at SOFI, Stockholm University, 2011; SFI, Copenhagen, 2013; DIW, Berlin, 2015; the University of Sydney, 2016; and the Life Course Center at the University of Queensland, 2016 for all their comments. Furthermore, comments from participants at ESPE 2010, EEA 2010, the Danish Microeconometric Network meeting in Skagen, 2010, and the Economics of the Family Conference in Paris, 2011, are gratefully acknowledged. All errors remain our own.

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Correspondence to Leslie S. Stratton.


Appendix 1

See Table 5.

Table 5 Linear models of child outcomes: additional results for specification (2)

Appendix 2

See Table 6.

Table 6 Other covariates for first stage IV models

Appendix 3

See Table 7.

Table 7 Other covariates for IV models

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Rasmussen, A.W., Stratton, L.S. How distance to a non-resident parent relates to child outcomes. Rev Econ Household 14, 829–857 (2016).

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