Do you think that “many Americans don’t succeed because the family that should be there to guide them, and serve as the first rung on the ladder of success, isn’t there or is badly broken” and that we need to dedicate ourselves to “restoring the home where married moms and dads are pillars of strong communities raising good citizens”?
That’s what Rick Santorum told the Republican National Convention on August 28, 2012.
I like to evaluate claims with data. Santorum has been bashing single parents for many years. In Singled Out, in the chapter titled, “Myth # 7. Attention Single Parents: Your Kids Are Doomed,” I looked at one particular statement of Santorum’s: “Every statistic that I’m aware of – and I’d be anxious to hear if there’s one on the other side – says that marriage is better for children – every one – and usually by a very large margin.”
My chapter in Singled Out picks up there. (The endnotes and references are in the book.)
Let’s start with that “very large margin.” In the National Drug Abuse Survey, the difference in abuse between adolescents in mother plus father homes and mother-only homes was 1.2%. Hardly “a very large margin.” Moreover, on average, marriage was the worst possible outcome for kids when the marriage was between a father and a stepmother.
When studies find that children of single parent households do worse in some way or another than children of married parents, there is often a critical difference in the two kinds of households: The single-family households have less income, less in savings, and fewer assets. That means that the married parents are more likely to be able to afford health insurance, safe neighborhoods, and SAT prep courses for their kids. The issue, in short, is not (just) having too few parents, it is having too little money. 11
Here’s something else Senator Santorum does not seem to know: Sometimes the number of parents, their marital status, and their biological links to their children just do not matter at all. That’s what a quartet of sociologists discovered when they looked closely at a nationally representative sample of different kinds of households. Two-parent biological households, adoptive households, stepmother, stepfather, and single (divorced) mother households were all part of their study.
The researchers asked about the children’s relationships with their siblings and with their friends, and their grades. They looked for different points of view, asking mothers and fathers about their lives and the children’s, and asking the children, too. The type of household made no difference whatsoever. But here are some things that did matter, and not in a good way: conflict within families, disagreements between parents, and arguments between parents and kids. As the authors concluded, “Our findings suggest that adoption, divorce, and remarriage are not necessarily associated with the host of adjustment problems that have at times been reported in the clinical literature…It is not enough to know that an individual lives within a particular family structure without also knowing what takes place in that structure.” 12
Of course, some degree of conflict is commonplace in all families, even in the most loving and cohesive ones. So it is not the low level of everyday sniping that matters, but the loud drone of relentless dissent. There is little doubt that the latter atmosphere is bad for kids. A study of thirty-nine nations found that children were emotionally better off around the globe if they were raised by a single mother than if they stayed in a home with two married parents who couldn’t stop fighting. Kids also did better in that cross-national study if they were raised by a single, divorced parent than by remarried parents, even if the remarriages were not marked by particularly high levels of turmoil. 13
To understand how children really are faring in single-parent homes, watch how they do year after year as their living situation changes. Divorce is a great example, as there is often a clear “before” and “after” set of living arrangements. If you look at children after a divorce has occurred – let’s say when they are living only with their mother – some may have behavioral problems, substance abuse problems, self-esteem issues, and other troubles. But if you had been following those children for many years before the divorce ever occurred, you would have found something interesting. For some kids, the problems began to materialize as many as twelve years before the divorce. The difficulties, then, did not spring from the soil of single motherhood; they developed under the roof of two married biological parents. 14
In their everyday lives, the emotional experiences of children in single-parent and married parent homes are similar. In one study, 396 children on the cusp of adolescence (10-14 years old) agreed to carry pagers every day for a week. During their waking hours, the pager went off at random intervals about five times a day. As soon as it did, the children recorded whom they were with, what they were doing, how they felt, and how friendly the other person seemed. The main difference was not in how the children felt, but how the parents behaved toward them. Parents in single-parent homes were friendlier to their kids than were the married parents. 15
I do think that Senator Santorum and I agree on one thing: Stability is important to children. I think he locates stability primarily within the homes of continuously-married parents. Single parents, though, can provide stability, too. When they settle in with their kids, maintain a good connection with them, and do not jump from one marriage to another, they are probably going to have children who are as healthy and secure as anyone else’s.
Stability does not come from parents alone. Other people in children’s lives, such as siblings, cousins, friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents’ friends, can contribute that, too. In the pager study, the children from single-parent homes spent more time with their extended families than did the children living with married parents.
Single mom and son photo available from Shutterstock