Adults’ lives are changing and so are families and relationships. Today, people are opting out of parenthood at unprecedented rates, a fact that vexes many nations concerned with aging workforces and elder care.

In 2010, 43 countries had policies designed to increase fertility among their populace. Though the United States does not have such a policy, fertility rates have declined significantly here as well. In 1976, 10 percent of U.S. women ages 40 to 44 had never had a child. By 2006, that percentage had doubled.

Some people who don’t have children would like to have them. However, increasing numbers of people are choosing to form families without children.

Yet families that don’t include children do have an important role to play in the lives of children, since they and their parents can use all the support and care they can get. Incomes for most Americans have been squeezed; it is rare to have a stay-at-home parent; and everyone is busier than ever.

As the adage goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” My research with child-free adults (the term preferred by many who are voluntarily childless) affirms this saying. While stereotypes of the child-free paint them as self-involved baby-haters, most in fact enjoy the company of children. Even more, many child-free adults maintain significant, meaningful relationships with children that make a positive difference in kids’ lives.

According to the people I’ve interviewed, child-free adults serve as mentors, role models, back-up parents, playmates, fun aunties, big brothers, partners-in-crime, advisers and buddies to the children in their lives. And, as research conducted for Big Brothers Big Sisters shows, having caring adults who are not their parents involved in their lives improves kids’ confidence, grades and social skills.

A child-free man I interviewed recounted his and his wife’s experience with children, which echoes that of other child-free adults: “Most of our friends have kids, and as the couple without kids, sometimes we have more of an ability to play with their kids than other couples. When we come to their houses, we can actually really interact with their kids, like almost an aunt and uncle thing. We just get in there and hang out.”

Child-free adults may also be more available – in terms of time, money or other resources – to take on special legal or emotional responsibilities with kids than their parent counterparts. One woman invited her nephew, for whom she and her husband act as godparents, to live with them for a few months after he had gotten into some trouble at home.

She said, “We wanted to provide someone who had so much potential with the opportunity to see a different way of living. It really was a wonderful experience for us and I think it really made a difference for our nephew. It was fun. We took him to different places; we took him to wonderful restaurants, to concerts, to New York City and gallery openings; we introduced him to our friends; and it was a world far from what he had experienced to that point.”

In these and numerous other cases, meaningful and lasting connections with kids were possible because the adults involved chose to create families that did not include children of their own. Child-free families are just one form of family that should not be overlooked, if for no other reason than that these families actually benefit children.

Families have changed a lot, but children will always need love and guidance. Whether those raising children are single-parents, heterosexual couples, or gay or lesbian parents, other adults make a positive difference in a child’s life.

Amy Blackstone is an associate professor at the University of Maine and chairman of the sociology department. She is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.