It is part of the conventional wisdom of our time that the children of single parents do not fare as well as the children of married parents. They don’t have two married people loving them and caring for them, the story goes, and that’s why they don’t do as well. What’s more, many people believe that this is not just a story, but a fact grounded in science.
It is not surprising that people with paid positions in organizations promoting marriage would perpetrate claims like this. But it is not only them. There are social scientists who make similar claims.
There is a lot wrong with this, as I have been arguing for many years. When you hear that the children of single parents are not doing as well as the children of married parents, you are only hearing part of the story. Yes, there are studies that show that – but there are also studies showing important ways in which the children of single parents do as well or even better than the children of married parents.
There’s something even more important than the selective emphasis on only those studies that make the children of single parents look bad. It is that, even when studies do show an advantage for the children of married parents, they are not showing that those kids did better because they were raised by married parents. (This is one of the most fundamental tenets of scientific research: Don’t confuse correlation with causality!) There are other compelling explanations, including the many striking ways in which married people are substantially benefited and protected and single people are not, and the relentless ways in which single parents and their children are shamed, while married-parent families are respected and celebrated.
Getting the Science of Single Parenting Wrong: A Case Study
The claim that single-parent families just aren’t as good as married-parent families is made repeatedly. I think it is useful to look at specific examples, and examine them in detail, to see just what they are saying and what they are getting wrong.
The case study I’ll use here is an article, “When it comes to child well-being, is one parent the same as two?”, published by the Institute for Family Studies. In it, the author points to W. Bradford Wilcox, who points to other researchers, who claim that “children raised by two biological parents in a stable marriage do better than children in other family forms across a wide range of outcomes.” She wants us to believe that just about every aspect of a child’s life, from their safety right down to the length of their telomeres, is superior if they fit the model of marital supremacy – meaning that they are raised by their own two married biological parents. (The implication seems to be that adopted children are inferior, too.)
The author makes the same mistake so many others do. She seems to think that if some studies show that children of married parents do better in some ways than children of single parents, that means they are doing better because their parents are married.
This is the Magical Miracle of Marriage belief system. Get married, and you and your kids will have achieved what she calls the “premier family form.” Get divorced or widowed, and too bad for you and your kids – now you are inferior.
The Magical Miracle of Marriage: How It Works
Let me explain how this works. The author thinks kids are safer if their parents are married. Let’s assume, for the sake of this argument, that she is right that the children of married parents do better than the children of single parents in some of the ways she is claiming (though she cannot be counted on to get things right, as, for example, when she claims that it is women who suffer the most from the absence of marriage). If it is marriage that causes children to be safer, this is what that means: If a woman is going out with a man who is abusive, and she marries him, then he will be less abusive. Remember, according to the author, marriage causes all sorts of good things to happen and makes bad things less likely to happen. It is the Magical Miracle of Marriage.
Same with telomeres (“shortened length,” the author claims, is “linked to adverse health outcomes”). The causal interpretation is that if a cohabiting couple with kids gets married, their kids’ telomeres will grow. If they then get divorced, the telomeres will shrink.
Maybe all this is true. Maybe marriage causes such changes.
Does Marriage Cause Children to Do Better? What Other Explanation Is There?
Let’s think about this. The author believes children of heterosexual married biological parents do better than children of single parents because they are in “the premier family form” and all that it has to offer – the unique contributions of mom and dad and all the rest. But aren’t there other reasons, that have nothing to do with that?
Here are just two possibilities:
First, the married-parent families are supported more generously than single-parent families. For example, at the federal level alone, there are more than 1,000 laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. Some of those benefits include substantial financial advantages. Maybe the children of single parents would do better if they and their parents were not so massively disadvantaged by the laws and policies of the land.
Second, maybe the reason the children of single and married parents differ is because they are accorded different values and expectations by people like the author (who wants to separate families into the Premier ones and all the rest) and by society more generally. If single parents and their children were not stigmatized, if they were just as highly valued and respected as the children of married parents, maybe there would be fewer differences, smaller differences, or no differences at all. Or maybe there would be more ways in which the children of single parents would do better.
If the love and support of two heterosexual married parents, the biological parents of their children, really were the kinds of factors that mattered most, then the children of married parents should do better than the children of single parents all around the world. But they don’t. In some nations, in some ways, they do the same, and in others, it is the children of single parents who do better. Maybe policies matter. Maybe cultural attitudes and practices matter. Maybe the U.S. needs to do better.
It is not even necessary to look to other countries to see that the children of single parents sometimes do just as well, or even better, than the children of married parents. For example, the adolescents of never-married mothers raised in multi-generational households do better than the adolescents of married parents in nuclear family households: they drink and smoke less, and they are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college. (I described other examples in Singled Out and in Single Parents and Their Children: The Good News No One Ever Tells You.)
Even the studies showing that children of married parents do better than children of single parents are not as damning of the latter as the author would like us to believe. The results are averages, and often the differences between the children of married parents and single parents are small. Even without access to the relevant data, I can guarantee you that in every large-scale study that has ever been conducted, some of the children of the single parents did better than some of the children of married parents. There is no Magical Miracle of Marriage.
What If We Followed Children, Starting Before Their Parents Got Divorced?
The reason we cannot know for sure if marriage causes the children of married parents to do better than the children of single parents is because children cannot be randomly assigned to different family forms. But some kinds of studies are better than others.
For example, many studies compare the children of divorced parents to the children of married parents, and find that the children of married parents are doing better. A better sort of study, though, would follow the same children over time, to see how they are doing before and after their parents divorce.
As I discussed in Singled Out, one study that followed children for more than a decade found that for some children, “the problems began to materialize as early 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.” A review of the relevant research found that if you want to find children who are struggling, look for families that are “characterized by conflict and aggression and by relationships that are cold, unsupportive, and neglectful.” That’s more telling than counting the number of parents and checking to see if they are heterosexual and married.
Don’t Let Them Shame You. Just Don’t.
As a scientist, I’m concerned when research is presented and interpreted in ways that are uninformed by the most basic tenets of science. Sometimes, it is even worse than that. Sometimes the misrepresentations of science are used to shame single parents and their children. In the Institute for Family Studies article, for example, the author describes the families of married heterosexual biological parents as the “Premier Family Form” and all the others as inferior. Of her own single mother, she says, “her best was not enough.” She believes that she is not shaming anyone, but if I were a single parent or the child of one, none of her words would make me proud.
If you are a single parent or the child of a single parent, you should be proud. You faced obstacles that no one should have put in your way – and in some countries, no one would have put in your way – and I bet you did great. Not perfectly – no one’s life is perfect – but I bet you have lived a life that you can feel truly proud of. I bet you showed more resilience than people in families that get all the breaks, and all the respect and celebration, too.
One final word. Sometimes the people pushing pro-marriage, singles-shaming messages come from a Christian perspective, as was the case with the article I critiqued here. But don’t pin that on all Christians. For example, take a look at the beautiful, dignified, and celebratory sentiments of the person who wrote the most recent guest post for this blog.
Note: This article was adapted from a longer column I wrote for Unmarried Equality. Thanks to Unmarried Equality for their permission. The views expressed here are mine alone.
To read more about what we really know about single parents and their children, check out the relevant chapter in Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After or take a look at the brief book, Single Parents and Their Children: The Good News No One Ever Tells You.