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Is marriage really necessary for parenting?

Lisa Steinke, with Liz Fenton, is the co-author of the debut chick lit novel l'll Have Who She's Having and the popular Chick Lit blog chicklitisnotdead.com.

Does your child need Mom and Dad to be married?

More and more couples with kids are opting out of marriage for financial or even political reasons, but is this lack of a ring and a ceremony what’s best for the children?

Celebrity parents and the new nuclear family

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt; Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber; Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick. The list of unmarried celebrity couples with kids is growing longer — especially those who cite political reasons for not tying the knot. Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard recently announced their pregnancy and the couple, although they are engaged, say they still have no plans to marry. Their reason? They want to wait until all gay and lesbian couples are afforded this same right. "We'll have them out of wedlock," 37-year-old Shepard told Larry King in a recent interview. "We're not worried about that."

So the question is, are even the most well-intentioned parents and future parents like Shepard and Bell — who are choosing not to marry — doing their children more harm than good? It really depends on who you ask... But with 40 percent of American babies born to unmarried parents, it's an important question to consider.

Families come in all shapes and sizes

"The reality of American culture today is that families come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and that is a good thing! Most of the research points to the fact that there is no 'perfect formula' for a healthy nurturing family environment in which children need to be raised to grow up healthy, happy and whole, emotionally," says Lisa Stevenson who holds a master's degree in counseling and has done extensive study on how the parental relationship affects children.

"The one common thread that all of the healthiest families do have is stability," adds Stevenson.

Sometimes love isn't enough

While most won't argue with how a celebrity's influence can inspire change and thus is commendable that these famous parents like Bell and Shepard would want to use their influence to help others, many experts still believe that marriage is what's best for the kids. Psychologist Tina Tessina brings up this point: "Marriage creates consequences for leaving the relationship that aren't there in cohabitation, and while we like to think love will be enough, it frequently isn't."

Life coach Amy Shoen adds, "No, you don't have to have a ring, but it does show commitment to each other and [not having one] makes it easier to walk away."

Being unwed and pregnant can get you fired >>

You need to define what your family is

Experts also agree that choosing not to marry can create confusion in children. Dr. John Duffy says he's worked with a number of parents who are unmarried by choice. "Some of the children are confused by their parents' arrangement and why they've chosen not to marry. In these situations I have found that the parents have been somewhat unclear about their feelings for each other with the kids. And they've also been unclear about the definition of family for them," says Duffy, who adds, "I found that these children felt insecure in their families."

"Parents should create a 'culture' of family within the household. That is, they collectively engage in rituals, celebrations, meals... that define them as a family," suggests Duffy.

"Once a child is old enough to understand, talk to them frankly about the reasons Mom and Dad chose not to marry. Like a lot of parent-child conversations, I encourage them to open with the things that do not change: We both love you, we love each other, we are a family."

Read more about marriage and parenting

How to adopt as a single mom
4 Things that your kids learn from your healthy marriage
Your kids and your marriage: Both are important

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