Toward the end of her attention-grabbing cover story of the Atlantic magazine, Kate Bolick shares what she has discovered about the attractions of single life for women. Often single women have networks of close friends. They can balance autonomy and intimacy. They can even raise children.
But then she adds this parenthetical aside: “(Evidence suggests that American children who grow up amidst the disorder that is common to single-parent homes tend to struggle.)” At least she includes some qualifiers. She’s talking about American children, not all children. The kids “tend to” struggle; they don’t struggle mightily. Still, this sort of casual condemnation of millions of American children is not unusual – not even in an article that is in other ways very thoughtful about single life.
When I was writing Singled Out, I studied original research reports on lives of children from single-parent families and how they differed from those of children raised by two married parents. I continue to keep track of that research. Below is some of what I’ve learned from that research – conclusions that rarely get any play in the media. (Chapter 9 of Singled Out provides many more details and lots of references.)
- On any particular measure, the vast majority of the children of single parents are doing just fine. For example, in a national survey of substance abuse among more than 22,000 adolescents from many different kinds of households, the rate of substance abuse among the children of single parents was 5.7%. That means that more than 94% of the adolescent children of single mothers did not have substance abuse problems.
- When the children of single mothers have higher rates of certain problems than do the children of married parents, often the difference is very small. In the same substance abuse study, for example, the rate for the children of married parents was 4.5%. If a study such as this one made it into the media, the headlines would probably shout, “Children of single mothers abuse drugs and alcohol.” But look at the actual numbers: 5.7% for the children of single mothers, compared to 4.5% for the children of married parents. That’s a difference of just a tad more than 1%.
- When children of divorced parents have problems, sometimes those problems started when the parents were still married. For example, researchers who followed the children of married parents for more than a decade, not knowing in advance whether the parents would stay married or divorce, found something very telling. Among those children whose parents did divorce and who had problems, sometimes their difficulties began as early as 12 years before the divorce. They were already “struggling” while their parents were married.
- Some studies of American families find no differences at all between the children of single mothers and the children from other household types. For example, in a nationally representative study of children from different kinds of households (2-parent biological, adoptive, step-father, step-mother, and single-mother), the type of household did not matter. Children’s grades, and their relationships with their siblings and their friends, were about the same.
- There are factors that are more likely to put children at risk than living in a single-parent home. An important review of risky families concluded that children become vulnerable if they are raised in families “characterized by conflict and aggression and by relationships that are cold, unsupportive, and neglectful.”
- A similar conclusion comes from a study of 39 nations: Children were better off if they were raised by a single mother than by two married parents who were arguing all the time. The children also did better when raised by one divorced parent than by remarried parents.
- There are ways in which the American children of single parents report more positive experiences than the children of married parents. For example, in a study in which 10- to 14-year olds were paged at random times and asked to describe (when they were with someone else) how friendly that other person was to them, the children of single parents described friendlier interactions with their parents than did the children of married parents.
- International research on the children of single parents – which gets little attention in the U.S. – puts American single-parenting in perspective. For example, a study of 5 Asian nations found that in only one of them, Japan, did the children of single parents show a disadvantage in reading skills compared to the children of married parents. In two countries, Hong Kong and Korea, there was little difference, and in two others, Indonesia and Thailand, children of single parents did better. Why? Maybe because extended family members stepped in to help.
- In a study of math and science achievement across 11 countries, the two countries in which the children of single parents were most disadvantaged were the United States and New Zealand. There were no differences between single-parent and married-parent homes in Austria and Iceland. (The in-between countries were Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Scotland.) Why the differences? The authors showed that children of single parents were less likely to be disadvantaged “when family policies equalize resources between single- and two-parent families.”
- The bottom line was best stated by the authors of the research described in #4: “It is not enough to know that an individual lives within a particular family structure without also knowing what takes place in that structure.”
I’m not trying to minimize the challenges of single parenting. But I do want to caution against statements declaring that the children of single parents are doomed. They are not. And as for that supposed “disorder that is common to single-parent homes”: Seriously, have you never walked into a married-parent home that was disorderly?
Photo by Maryann Smith, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.