A high school student writing a paper on single parents and their children was stunned and hurt by the many sweeping and scientifically-unfounded criticisms she discovered during the course of her research. She is a child of a single mother, and wanted to know what was behind all of the stereotyping and stigmatizing.
I posted the questions she sent me and my answers to the first two of them here. Now on to some issues relevant to her last two questions.
How can social scientists and journalists do better in their discussions of single parents and their children?
Social scientists and the journalists who disseminate their work have a responsibility to report accurately and fairly. That is always true, no matter what the topic. When we are talking about research claims which have the potential to color people’s lives, then that imperative is even more pressing. That’s because people’s expectations about other people – for example, teachers’ expectations for their students – can actually shape those people’s behaviors. That’s true even when those expectations are just plain false. (I described some of that research, and the possible implications for single people, in “Can your expectations shape my behavior?”)
There are so many things that reporters overlook or get wrong when they are writing about single parents and their children. (See, for example, 10 things no one ever tells you about the parents of single children.) I think that social scientists should shoulder some of the blame for this; they need to be clearer about what their studies do and do not demonstrate.
When pundits, ideologues, and even people with the best of intentions make claims about the dire fates of the children of single parents, they are not just engaging in harmless banter. Their unfair assertions can undermine the real lives of the people who hear them.
What can we do in our policies, and in our everyday lives, to help single parents and their children?
As for what we can do to help single parents, there are other scholars and policy-oriented thinkers who have made important recommendations. Those suggestions include: more, and more affordable, day care; more job training and educational opportunities; better family and medical leave, including paid leave; more pay equality for women and better pay for everyone who is not already at the top of the food chain. Of course, many of these improvements would be beneficial to people beyond single parents.
I have two additions to the list I just described. First, we need to recognize that for many people today, the most important people in their lives are not (just) the nuclear family unit comprised of mom, dad, and the kids. As more people live single, and more single people raise kids; and as family size continues to decline, other kinds of people become important to us. They might include, for example, close friends, mentors, neighbors, colleagues, and family members other than a spouse or a parent or child – for example, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents and grandchildren. We need to recognize the significance of those kinds of people in many ways – for example, by expanding the reach of the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Second, we need to stop the stereotyping and the stigmatizing. Let’s focus on resilience and put the power of positive expectations to good use. All children (and all adults) deserve encouragement. We should dedicate ourselves to developing strengths and bringing out the best in each other.
The person who has earned the last word is that daughter of a single parent who initiated this conversation:
“I feel that people need to take a closer look at those around them because I believe there are many more stories of children of single parents like myself, who, despite the criticism, have worked hard throughout life to make myself not only equal with others but, to have the potential to exceed expectations that are set for “normal” children of two parents.”
Mother and son photo available from Shutterstock