There's a lot not to like in the cover story for Time written by the smugly-married Caitlin Flanagan. There is, for example, the predictable singlism (Mark Sanford's soulmate is not just a single woman but an "emotionally needy single woman," because really, what other kind could there be), the obliviousness to any moral compass other than Flanagan's own (if parents are unmarried, it is because they "simply can't be bothered to marry each other"), and more. For this post, though, I will focus on the statement that is, by scientific standards, the most egregious and indefensible:
"On every single significant outcome related to short-tem well-being and long-term success, children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households...if you can measure it, a sociologist has; and in all cases, the kids living with both parents drastically outperform the others." (emphasis mine)
Actually, they don't.
I will draw from the most impressive studies I can find (typically, those based on large, nationally representative samples) to show that:
• Sometimes children from single-parent homes do just as well, or even better, than children from two-parent families.
• Sometimes they do worse, but not "drastically" so, as Flanagan misleadingly suggests.
• When children living with one divorced parent do worse than those from two-parent homes, sometimes they were already having problems long before their parents divorced.
• Factors such as the quality of a parent's relationship with the child and the stability in a child's life can be more powerful than the number of parents in the household.
• The simple-minded "just get (re)married" advice can be misguided.
I. Here are a few examples, from large nationally representative samples, in which children from 2-parent households hardly differed at all from the others.
• In a large, nationally representative sample of two-parent biological households, adoptive households, stepmother, stepfather, and single (divorced) mother households, there were no significant differences across the different households in the children's grades, or in the children's relationships with their siblings or their friends. What mattered to the children was whether the parents were constantly arguing with them or with each other. 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."
• What about sex? Are adolescents who are not being raised in two-parent households having earlier and more wanton sex? An answer comes from a national sample of more than 12,000 adolescents between the ages of 11 and 18. Four different family types were compared to intact 2-parent families: single-parent families, stepfamilies, cohabiting families, and lesbian families. The authors looked at the age at which the adolescents first had sex, and for the sexually active ones, their number of partners. They did this separately for the boys and the girls. That means there were 16 opportunities for the authors to find evidence for Flanagan's claim that kids living with both parents are drastically better off (4 types of comparison families X 2 measures of sexual behavior, X two kinds of kids, boys and girls). There were no significant differences at all for the boys. It just didn't matter what kind of household they were living in. For the girls, they had sex earlier if they were from single-parent households, but they had fewer sexual partners if they were from cohabiting families. For the other 6 comparisons involving girls, household type made no difference. So what did matter? In the authors' words: "the familial context - primarily familial involvement as measured by the mother-child relationship and familial culture as measured by maternal attitudes regarding adolescent sexual activity - is a more relevant factor."
• For other examples and further discussion, see Chapter 9 of Singled Out.
II. Here's an example from a large nationally representative sample in which children from two-parent families did better, but hardly "drastically" so.
A national substance abuse survey, based on 22,000 adolescents, found more substance abuse among the children of single mothers than among the children of two biological parents. But the difference was small: 5.7% of the children of single mothers had substance abuse problems, compared to 4.5% for the children of two biological parents. That also means that more than 94% of the children from single-parent homes did NOT have problems with drugs or alcohol. What's more, two was not a magical number of parents - on the average, the kids did better living with a single mom than they did with a dad who was married to a stepmother. The best living arrangement of all (with regard to substance abuse) included three adults - typically, mom, dad, and a grandparent.
III. Around the world: Here are examples in which children from single-parent households did the same or BETTER.
Hey Caitlin, can you see Austria from your house?
If the effects of growing up in a single-parent household were as sweepingly, spectacularly, and uniformly damning as Flanagan claims they are, then we should find that the children of single parents are doomed around the world.
Consider, for example, a study of the math and science achievement of grade-schoolers in 11 industrialized countries. How equal was the performance of children from single-parent vs. two-parent households? The U.S. and New Zealand were dead last in equality - their children of single-parent families did worse than the children of two-parent families. In Austria and Iceland, there is no achievement gap at all. (In Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Scotland, the gap is smaller than it is in the US and NZ.) Why the differences? Here's what the authors suggest:
"The United States and New Zealand lag behind other industrialized countries in providing financial assistance, in the form of universal child benefits, tax benefits, and maternity leave to poor and single-parent households. The same can be said about the quality and the generosity of parental leave packages (p. 695)."
Now let's look at children's reading skills in five Asian countries and compare them to the U.S. In Japan, there's a difference favoring the children of married parents, but it is smaller than in the US. In Hong Kong and Korea, there is no difference. In Thailand and Indonesia, the children of single parents are better readers than the children in two-parent intact families. If this seems like a puzzling possibility, maybe that's because Americans are so focused on marriage and nuclear families that we miss all of the other important people in our lives and the lives of our children. Extended family is more valued in some Asian countries than it is here; social, emotional, and economic resources are more readily shared. If a dad isn't around to pitch in, maybe an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent or a whole network of relatives is.
IV. What was going on BEFORE the parents split? What if they had stayed together?
In many studies of the implications of divorce for children, researchers assess how the kids are doing at just one point in time - after the divorce has taken place. But maybe that's like skipping to the last page of a novel, and missing out on all that happened to bring the kids to the place they're at.
Flanagan seems to take Jon and Kate Gosselin a bit too seriously. To her, Jon left Kate because he "had gotten bored with being bossed around by Kate" and had a fling. Other unnamed parents, she tells us, "drift in and out of their children's lives." Maybe there are some actual humans who are that casual about divorce, but I think that for most real people, divorce - including the period leading up to it - involves intense emotional turmoil. The question then becomes: What is happening in the lives of children when they are still living in "intact" married-parent homes in which the two parents are, perhaps, arguing relentlessly?
In studies of some of the difficulties that Flanagan so recklessly pins on single parenting, such as substance abuse and behavioral problems, evidence of those difficulties can be traced back as far as 12 years BEFORE the parents divorced. (References are in Singled Out.) The timeline is not: parents split, kids freak out. Rather, the kids are already troubled well in advance of the divorce, while they are living in the supposedly ideal household run by two married parents.
Another relevant study was based on a nationally representative sample of more than 10,000 high school students followed over time. The author compared the students whose parents spit up over the course of the study to those whose parents stayed together. He found that the students whose parents would eventually split were already doing less well on math and reading and had more behavioral problems even while their parents were still together. Their family environments were different - they saw their parents as getting along less well with them (the adolescents) and with each other. Their parents were also less involved in their educations (such as by discussing school-related issues with them).
The "just get married" advice of marriage-promotion programs (and of those who would simplify or caricature the issues) rests on a teetering assumption - that if those parents who fight constantly or endure each other in icy silence would just stay together, then their kids (who are already having problems) would be just fine.
I do not want in any way to minimize the emotional pain and other difficulties that can face children in any type of household, including single-parent homes. But it is also wrong to blatantly misrepresent and exaggerate those problems.
One Last Reason to Stop the Stigmatizing
The utter inaccuracy of the claim that kids living with both parents "drastically outperform" children of single parents "in all cases" is more than enough reason to make that sort of irresponsible stigmatizing stop. Here's another. Single parenting can't all be pinned on wandering, lying, hypocritical South Carolina governors who spend Fathers Day with a South American mistress instead of their kids. Death happens. Ongoing wars mean that scores of children who go to sleep at night with two parents wake up in the morning with just one. Medical calamities outside of war zones create instant one-parent families, too.
If readers were to take Caitlin Flanagan's proclamations at face value, then they may be tempted to conclude that if death or anything else turns their two-parent household into a one-parent home, then they should hurry and marry again. Perhaps Flanagan should have said a word about the conclusion of the book she mentions. In The Marriage-Go-Round, Andrew Cherlin ends with this piece of advice - "Slow down":
"Americans' pattern of going quickly from partner to partner is problematic for children...we should focus not only on Americans' tendency to end relationships too quickly - the most common critique - but also on their tendency to start relationships too quickly (p. 194)."
The message, in a way, is a familiar one: Stability is good for kids. The difference between Flanagan's argument and Cherlin's or mine, though, is that Flanagan seems to locate stability only within two-parent households. Sure, it can be there, but if that's the only place you see it, then you are standing out in the rainstorm of conventional wisdom and need to invest in an intellectual umbrella.
After reading stacks of research papers in the professional journals (and not just going by the claims of people such as Judith Wallerstein or members of the Heritage Foundation), I came to this conclusion in Singled Out:
"Single parents 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 (p. 182)."
Hoffman, J. P., & Johnson, R. A. (1998). A national portrait of family structure and adolescent drug use. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 633-645.
Lansford, J. E., Ceballo, R., Abbey, A., & Stewart, A. J. (2001). Does family structure matter? A comparison of adoptive, two-parent biological, single-mother, stepfather, and stepmother households. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 840-851.
Park, H. (2007). Single parenthood and children's reading performance in Asia. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 863-877.
Pong, S.-L., Dronkers, J., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2003). Family policies and children's school achievement in single- versus two-parent families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 681-699.
Sun, Y. (2001). Family environment and adolescents' well-being before and after parents' marital disruption: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 697-713.