HAVING well-educated parents is more important for a child's well-being than being part of a family where a mother and father live together.
A major new study published today says the education level of the mother is particularly important in giving a child a good start in life.
Well-being includes the child's reading and mathematical ability, their social and emotional adjustment as well as their physical health, such as having a long-term illness like asthma.
'Family Relationships and Family Well-Being: A Study of Families of Nine-Year-Olds in Ireland', compiled by researchers in UCD, will be published today by Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald.
It is based on a sample of 8,568 nine-year-olds.
"It shows that family type is not the over-riding influence on the well-being of a child," said lead author Dr Tony Fahey, of the UCD School of Applied Social Science.
"Our findings show only a slight, or, in many cases, a complete absence of differences in the indicators of child well-being between children of two-parent married families, co-habiting families, step-families, and one-parent families.
"The single most important mechanism that public policy can use to combat family problems is to tackle educational disadvantage."
The findings, which provide a revealing insight into modern-day Irish families, show:
• Eight out of 10 of nine-year-olds in Ireland live with both their natural parents and 17.5pc are in lone parent families. Some 3pc are in step-families which, in nearly all cases, is when the mother has found a new partner.
l One in five of never-married lone parents live with at least one grandparent, a feature of their living arrangements that researchers found to be positive for their well-being, though not necessarily for the well-being of their children.
• Better educated parents were shown to be more likely to delay the start of child-bearing until their late 20s, while the least educated mothers were more inclined to have a first child before age 25. Among these "early start" mothers, the likelihood of being unmarried lone parents was high.
The study also revealed that married couples had three children on average, while unmarried lone parents have a 1.8 children.
Dr Fahey added: "With stability in couple relationships weakest among the least educated parents – and this weakness tending to reduce family size – many families of the least educated parents are now smaller than the overall average."
He pointed out that "this is a significant reversal on the past historical situation in Ireland".
Mothers with little or no secondary school education were five to six times more likely to smoke.
And they were more than three times more likely to show depressive symptoms than mothers with a postgraduate education.
Mothers who live with with their parents were half as likely as other mothers to suffer from depression or to smoke daily. One in five lone mothers live with their own parents.