Mention single parents and someone will immediately claim that their children are doomed. They will insist that they have scientific evidence on their side. Often, these people don’t really understand how to interpret scientific findings because they’ve had no training. Sometimes, though, the people making such claims are fully grown researchers who should know better.
I have been studying the research on the children of single parents ever since I started working on my first book about single people, Singled Out. I found that:
(1) Yes, it is easy to find studies that appear to show that the children of single parents are doing worse than the children of married parents – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are doing worse because they are in a single-parent household, and if only they were raised by married parents, they’d be doing great.
(2) In some important ways, the children of single parents are doing better than other children – but that research does not get much attention.
Previously, I have written about these issues at length. Here I want to offer you a shorter version, in the form of 7 ways of thinking about the relevant research that will give you a more sophisticated and more accurate perspective than you’ve gotten from the conventional wisdom. Next time you hear a claim that the children of single parents are “at risk,” keep these points in mind.
Want to Know How the Children of Single Parents Really Are Doing? Keep These Suggestions in Mind
Study children over time. For example, how were the children doing before their parents got divorced?
From Singled Out:
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.
Ask yourself: What else is different about single-parent and married-parent homes, other than the number of parents? Maybe that’s why some children are doing better than others.
Most studies do not follow children for years, to see how they are doing as the circumstances of their lives change. Typically, researchers just compare the children of single parents to other children at one point in time. Here’s what I said about those studies in Singled Out:
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.
What is it like inside the home? Married parents who are constantly arguing, or icing each other out, are not doing their children any favors.
From Singled Out:
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.”
Look what’s happening around the world. In comparisons with other countries, the U.S. often looks relatively bad in how its children of single parents are doing. In some other nations, they are doing fine, and sometimes even better than 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.”
From Singled Out:
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.
Critics of single-parent families say that stability is important to kids. It is. But they are wrong in thinking that only married parents can provide stability.
From Singled Out:
Stability is important to children…. 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.
Sometimes the children of single parents do better than the children of married parents.
In Singled Out and in Single Parents and Their Children: The Good News No One Ever Tells You, I documented some of the ways in which the children of single parents do even better than the children of married parents. Here’s another example, from an article in the Washington Post:
In one of the most comprehensive studies of children raised in different kinds of families, more than 11,000 eighth-graders from a nationally representative sample of schools were surveyed and then followed for six years. The adolescents were from 10 kinds of households, including those in which they were raised by married parents, cohabiting parents, parents and stepparents, grandparents (with no parents present), single mothers, single fathers and single mothers (divorced or always-single) in multi-generational households.
The conventional wisdom insists that the children of married parents do particularly well; and in this study, they did. But the children of divorced single parents in multi-generational households did just as well. They were no more likely to drink or smoke. They were not any less likely to graduate from high school or enroll in college. The age at which they began having sex was no younger.
There was one group of adolescents that did even better than the children of married parents – those who were raised in multi-generational households by mothers who had always been single. Those youths were less likely to drink or smoke than the children of married parents. More of them graduated from high school and enrolled in college. (They did not differ in the age at which they initiated sexual activity.)
Researchers do not yet know for sure why the children of single parents in multi-generational households do even better than the children living with only their married parents. Perhaps it’s because they have a mini-version of the village that it takes to raise a child, all under one roof.
How is it possible that the children of single parents sometimes do as well or better than the children of married parents?
People sometimes have a hard time understanding how the children of single parents could ever do as well or even better than the children of married parents. After all, in married-parent households, children have twice the number of parents; doesn’t that mean they also have twice the amount of love, attention, help, and everything else?
Here’s how I answered those questions in the chapter on single parents in Singled Out:
“I think there are several ways around this dilemma. The first is to let go of the fantasy that all children living in nuclear families have two totally engaged parents who lavish their love and attention on all their children, and on each other, in a home free of anger, conflict, and recriminations. The second is to grab onto a different sort of possibility – that many children living with single mothers have other important adults in their lives, too. I don’t mean just kids who have Grandma living with them. I also mean all of the kids who have grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, teachers, family friends, and others who care about them and make sure they know it.”
I don’t want to minimize the challenges or the pain that single parents and their children can face – especially in nations such as the U.S. in which marriage and nuclear family is worshipped, single people and their families are stigmatized, and an organized movement of marriage fundamentalists has been working for decades to propagandize about heterosexual married parents and their families. But I do want to push back against the stereotyping and stigmatizing and shaming of single-parent families, with data. I’m a social scientist and I taught graduate courses in research methodology for decades. I didn’t know what to expect when I first started reading the original research reports on how the children of single parents really do fare. Now I do. The findings are often grossly distorted in the media. With this brief overview, I hope you now understand a bit about how that happens and what the findings really do and do not show. (You can find more of my writings on this topic, including articles from this “Single at Heart” blog, here.)