Gender differences in the transition
to early parenthood
LIANNE J. WOODWARD,aDAVID M. FERGUSSON,b
and L. JOHN HORWOODb
aUniversity of Canterbury & Christchurch School of Medicine; and
bChristchurch School of Medicine
Data gathered over the course of a 25-year longitudinal study of 1,055 young people was used to examine gender
differences in the onset of early parenthood and the developmental processes that place males and females at risk of
becoming a young parent. Results revealed clear gender differences in the timing of early parenthood, with females
being twice as likely as males to become a parent between the ages of 16 and 25 years. In contrast, the risk factors
and life course processes that placed males and females at risk of an early transition to parenthood were very
similar. Two exceptions were a gender-specific effect for maternal age and exposure to parental change, suggesting
that having been raised by a younger mother and having experienced parental changes in your family of origin
increased risks of early parenthood for females but not males. These findings contribute to our understanding of the
effects of gender on life course development.
In recent years, there has been considerable
theoretical and empirical interest in the impor-
tance of gender for child development and
psychopathology across a range of areas, in-
cluding crime and antisocial behavior ~e.g.,
Keenan, Loeber, & Green, 1999; Silverthorn
& Frick, 1999!, mental health ~e.g., Crick &
Zahn-Waxler, 2003; Nolen-Hoeksema & Gir-
gus, 1994!, physical health ~e.g., Fillingim,
2003!, pregnancy0childbearing ~e.g., Coley &
Chase-Lansdale, 1998!, and suicidal behavior
~e.g., Beautrais, 2002!. Of particular interest
has been the extent to which there are gender
differences and similarities in the developmen-
tal trajectories and causal processes that shape
male and female development, with some ar-
to be developed for males and females ~e.g.,
Keenan & Shaw, 1997; Silverthorn & Frick,
1999!, and others suggesting that substantial
overlap may exist in the risk factors and life
course processes that influence male and fe-
male development ~e.g., Moffitt, Caspi, Rut-
ter, & Silva, 2002!.
One area of development in which gender
differences are perhaps most likely to mani-
fest is in the transition to early parenthood
given the differing biological and social roles
that males and females have in the conception
and care of children. For example, compared
to their early parenting male peers, younger
mothers are much more likely to assume the
role of primary caregiver, and in many cases,
may be the sole parent. Consistent with this is
research showing that an early transition to
parenthood has far-reaching physical, social,
include educational underachievement ~Klep-
inger, Lundberg, & Plotnick, 1995; Marini,
1984!; socioeconomic disadvantage ~Fursten-
berg, Brooks-Gunn, & Morgan, 1987; Wil-
This research was funded by grants from the Health Re-
search Council of New Zealand, the National Child Health
Research Foundation, the Canterbury Medical Research
Foundation and the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board.
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Li-
anne Woodward, Child Development Research Group,
Department of Psychology, University of Canterbury, Pri-
Development and Psychopathology 18 ~2006!, 275–294
Copyright © 2006 Cambridge University Press
Printed in the United States of America
liams, McGee, Olaman, & Knight, 1997!,
1995!, reduced marital opportunities ~Furs-
tenberg et al., 1987!, maternal depression
~Colletta, 1983; Williams et al., 1997!, and
parenting problems, including increased rates
of physical punishment and child abuse ~Has-
kett, Johnson, & Miller, 1994; Woodward &
Fergusson, 2002!. Adding to these concerns
are recent findings suggesting that early moth-
erhood may now be an even more deviant and
disadvantaging life event than in previous de-
cades ~Butler, 1992; Maughan & Lindelow,
1997; Moffitt & Team, 2002!, with many con-
temporary young mothers now raising their
children in mother headed households, with
little or no financial or emotional support from
a partner, and in a socioeconomic climate of
declining benefit levels, qualification infla-
tion, and increased labor market demands
~Hotz & Williams-McElroy, 1997!.
Given recent debates about the importance
of gender for life course development and the
differing biological and social roles of youn-
ger mothers and fathers, it is surprising that
there have been no systematic evaluations of
the extent to which gender differences exist in
the prevalence and developmental processes
associated with an early transition to parent-
hood. Until recently, almost all studies con-
cerned with early parenthood have been based
on samples of younger mothers and their chil-
dren ~Brooks-Gunn & Chase-Lansdale, 1995;
Coley & Chase-Lansdale, 1998; Furstenberg,
Brooks-Gunn, & Chase-Lansdale, 1989!. Con-
sequently, very little is known about the full
extent of early fatherhood or the developmen-
tal processes that place young men at risk of
fathering a child and0or becoming a parent at
an early age. Of the handful of recent studies
that have examined developmental issues re-
lating to early fatherhood, virtually all have
& Blankson, 1994; Fagot, Pears, Capaldi,
Crosby, & Leve, 1998; Jaffee, Caspi, & Mof-
fitt, 2001; Pears, Pierce, Kim, Capaldi, &
Owen, in press; Thornberry, Smith, & How-
ard, 1997!. Furthermore, many of the samples
used in these studies consist of selected sam-
ples of high risk young males recruited during
middle childhood or early adolescence ~Fagot
et al., 1998; Pears et al., in press; Stouthamer-
Loeber & Wei, 1998; Thornberry et al., 1997!.
Studies concerned with the developmental
processes associated with an early transition
to motherhood have linked a wide range of
antecedent selection factors to an early transi-
tion to parental roles and responsibilities for
women ~Brooks-Gunn & Chase-Lansdale,
1995; Chase-Lansdale & Brooks-Gunn, 1994;
Furstenberg et al., 1989; Jaffee, Caspi, Mof-
fitt, Belsky, & Silva, 2001; Miller-Johnson
et al., 1999; Woodward, Fergusson, & Hor-
childhood social background ~poverty, wel-
fare dependence, large family size!, family
experiences ~family status, maternal age, pa-
rental educational underachievement; family
justment ~conduct problems!, educational
achievement ~IQ, school performance!, ado-
lescent peer interactions ~rejection, involve-
ment with deviant peers! and risk taking
behavior ~early sexual behavior, drug use; Bar-
done, Moffitt, Caspi, Dickson, & Silva, 1996;
Geronimus & Korenman, 1992; Manlove,
1997; McCormick & Brooks-Gunn, 1989;
Morgan, Chapar, & Fisher, 1995; Serbin et al.,
1998; Serbin, Moskowitz, Schwartzman, &
gusson, et al., 2001!.
Although much less research has been done
with males, findings from studies examining
the risk factors and life course processes asso-
ciated with early fatherhood generally suggest
marked similarities between the psychosocial
profiles of males and females becoming par-
ents at a young age. Consistent with the above,
studies of young fathers suggest that both fam-
ily and individual factors play an important
role in the prediction of early fatherhood. An-
tecedent factors linked with an early transi-
tion to fatherhood include social background
ternal age, parental change, presence of older
siblings in home!, behavioral adjustment ~de-
linquency!, educational ~poor school engage-
ment, educational underachievement!, peer
factors ~deviant peer involvement!, and risk-
taking behavior ~early onset sexual activity,
substance use0abuse; Dearden et al., 1994;
Fagot et al., 1998; Jaffee et al., 2001; Pears
L. J. Woodward, D. M. Fergusson, and L. J. Horwood
et al., in press; Stouthamer-Loeber & Wei,
1998; Thornberry et al., 1997; Xie, Cairns, &
Adding to these findings from single gen-
der studies are recent comparative results from
the Carolina Longitudinal Study ~Gest, Ma-
honey, & Cairns, 1999; Xie et al., 2001! show-
ing that school aged males and females who
were aggressive, poor school achievers, un-
popular with their peers, and who came from
low socioeconomic status ~SES! backgrounds
were most at risk of becoming parents early
~Gest et al., 1999!. This risk profile character-
ized those becoming parents by age 20 as well
as those becoming parents by age 23.5 years.
A second study from the same group examin-
ing a broader range of antecedent risk factors
also demonstrated clear similarities in the risk
profiles of teen mothers and fathers, with early
parenthood being linked with individual ~high
aggression, low academic ability!, family ~low
SES!, and peer factors ~low popularity; Xie
et al., 2001!. However, some gender specific
effects were also found, with African Ameri-
peer affiliations being more predictive of teen
motherhood than teen fatherhood.
Taken together, these findings suggest a
number of key points. First, findings suggest
that for both males and females, the transition
cess whereby those individuals raised in fam-
parental instability, and maternal role models
of young and single motherhood, as well as
those who have limited educational and per-
sonal resources are the most likely to become
parents at an early age. Second, these findings
highlight the possibility that there may be a
substantial overlap in the antecedent risk fac-
fatherhood. Third, as might be expected given
the differing biological and social roles of
males and females in the processes of concep-
tion and early parenting, findings suggest that
it is possible that some gender differences
might exist in the developmental processes
that place males and females at risk of an
early transition to parenthood.
Against this general background, the goal
of this paper is to extend our understanding of
the role of gender in the transition to parent-
hood, and in particular, the extent to which
gender differences exist in the onset of parent-
hood by age 25 and the developmental pro-
cesses placing young people at risk of early
parenthood. As noted above, most previous
studies have tended to focus exclusively on
teenage parenthood, and especially teenage
motherhood. However, in the last 40 years
there has been a dramatic shift in the age of
entry to parenthood, with most contemporary
young people now deferring childbearing and
fatherhood until their late 20s or early 30s.
This population change, evident across most
industrialized countries, has increased mark-
edly the disparity between teenage and older
~cohort typical! parenthood. It also suggests
that, in addition to teenage parenthood, some
consideration should also be given to those
young people making an early or substantially
off-time entry to parenthood relative to the
norm. There is some support for extending
analyses of early parenthood to include both
teenage and younger parents ~,25 years!. Spe-
cifically, there is growing evidence to suggest
that the developmental risks associated with
early motherhood may not be unique to the
offspring of teenage parents, but may, in fact,
represent a special case of a more general trend
for childhood risks to increase with increasing
youth of the mother ~Fergusson & Woodward,
1999; Ketterlinus, Henderson, & Lamb, 1991;
Ragozin, Basham, Crnic, Greenberg, & Rob-
inson, 1981!. For example, results from the
Christchurch Health and Development Study
have shown clear and pervasive linear associ-
ations between maternal age at first childbirth
and children’s later educational and psycho-
logical functioning, with decreasing maternal
age being associated with increasing rates of
later educational, psychosocial, and mental
health problems up to the age of 18 ~Fergus-
son & Woodward, 1999!. Thus, for the pur-
was defined as having become a parent by
To examine gender differences in the tran-
sition to parenthood, prospective longitudinal
data collected on a large representative birth
cohort is used to develop parallel models for
males and females of ~a! the timing of early
Gender and early parenthood
parenthood and ~b! the antecedent risk factors
and life course processes associated with early
parenthood ~by age 25!. Antecedent risk fac-
tors span a wide range of developmental
domains ~family background, structure and
lations! and periods of development ~child-
hood, adolescence!. This approach not only
has the advantage of allowing for direct gen-
der comparisons, but also helps to overcome
hindered research with younger fathers. These
problems include difficulties associated with
the assessment of paternity from medical
records and0or maternal report, the need to
recruit representative samples of young fa-
thers that encompass both involved and un-
involved fathers, and problems relating to
sample retention due to the higher rates of
The specific aims of the study were as
1. To examine gender differences in the rate
of onset of early parenthood for males and
females within the cohort over the period
from 16 to 25 years.
2. To compare the psychosocial profiles of
male and female cohort members who did
A wide range of prospectively measured
childhood and adolescent characteristics
were examined. Childhood factors included
measures of family social background,
structure, family functioning and the qual-
ity of family relations, and child charac-
teristics such as intellectual ability and
behavioral adjustment. Adolescent factors
included measures of deviant peer involve-
ment and risk taking, including early sex-
ual intercourse, drug use, novelty seeking
and deviant peer relations.
3. To develop multivariate models of the risk
factors and life course processes associ-
ated with early parenthood risk for males
and females, and to test for gender differ-
ences in the developmental processes asso-
ciated with early motherhood and early
Participants were members of an unselected
birth cohort that has been extensively studied
as part of the Christchurch Health and Devel-
opment Study. This study consists of a longi-
~635 males, 630 females! born in Christ-
church, New Zealand. Christchurch is the sec-
ond largest city in New Zealand ~NZ!, with a
current population of approximately 320,000
~84% NZ European, 7% NZ Maori, 2% Pa-
cific Island, 4%Asian, 4% other!. The sample
for this study was recruited over a 4-month
period during 1977 by contacting mothers of
all live-born children giving birth in public
and private maternity hospitals within the
Christchurch urban region. Of the 1,310 moth-
ers giving birth during this time, 97% agreed
to participate. These children and their fami-
lies have now been studied at birth, 4 months,
1 year, at annual intervals to age 16, and again
at ages 18, 21, and 25 years. Based on a multi-
informant model, data collection spans a range
assessments, self-reports, standardized psy-
chometric tests, and medical and official
records. An overview of the study design has
been given previously ~Fergusson, Horwood,
Shannon, & Lawton, 1989!.
Early parenthood. At age 25, sample mem-
bers were asked if they had ever given birth
to, or fathered a child. For each child identi-
fied, they were then asked to provide details
of the child’s age, gender, living arrange-
ments, as well as their current involvement
with the child. Comparison with parental sta-
tus information collected during earlier assess-
ment phases showed high ~100%! agreement
between earlier and age 25 reports of parent-
hood status. For the purpose of this study,
early parenthood was defined as having be-
come a biological parent by age 25 years. Both
custodial and noncustodial parents were in-
cluded. By age 25, 220 ~21.5%! sample mem-
bers had become parents. Only 17% of sample
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