Will Companies Discriminate Against Children of Single Parents?

Ominous statistics may tempt unfair but profitable discrimination.

Posted Aug 06, 2008

More recently, however, increasing numbers of experts are saying that it is better for a child to have two parents, and they point to a growing list of studies indicating that children turn out better if they were raised by two married parents than if they were raised by a single parent. I have yet to see a study that showed children of single parents performingg better than those who were raised by a married couple, even though one might speculate that having fewer parents should contribute to greater demands for maturity and other competencies.

The march of these ominous statistics about children of single parents has picked up pace recently. One begins to wonder how the statistics will be used, and by whom. This column is devoted to considering the possibility that employers and perhaps other organizations might begin to take them into account. This could amount effectively to discriminating against people who were raised by single parents.

Undoubtedly there are moral and political issues at stake in the prospect of discriminating against such individuals, who in many cases have already had to endure some hardship and deprivation as a result of the absence of one parent. I have nothing to say about the moral and political issues. This column simply will look at the scientific perspectives that psychology research can contribute.

Take a simple case. Suppose you are reviewing applicants for a job or a position in graduate or medical school or whatever. Suppose you have two candidates who seem alike in most respects. In many such situations, you really do not have extensive information, so the two applicants may be quite different, but you don't have any proof. Their test scores are similar and pretty good. They both have fine letters of recommendation (though in general all letters of recommendation are very positive, so they are not very helpful). In brief interviews, both gave standard, acceptable answers to the questions, with something impressive here or there, but overall just fine.

The only difference between the two of them in your limited information is that one of them was raised by a single parent, while the other was raised by two parents who were married to each other.

Based on aggregate data from large numbers of people, the general tendency is that children of single parents do worse than others at a great many things. These differences range from their being more likely to commit a crime or have a substance abuse problem, to having lower grades in math and being less likely to go to college. Whether we look at social relationships, behavioral problems, or achievement in school and work, the weight of the data go against the offspring of single parents. Based on these findings that pull together data from large numbers of people, the odds are, then, that the child of the single parent might just perform worse in some way at your job. Should you use that general fact as a basis for hiring the person who had two parents?

Of course, those are only odds. It might well turn out that this particular person would end up performing magnificently, heroically, at your job despite having had only one parent. This particular other person, who had two married parents from birth till twenty-one, might be a scoundrel, a loser, an incompetent, a fraud. To judge people based on categories is to deny them the chance to be judged as individuals. That is why America's founding fathers emphasized individuality. Then again, one might argue that judging people based on test scores or where they went to college is also making a judgment based on a category. The only way to find out how they will perform at your job, really, is to hire them both and see how they do over a long period of tie. But that's not practical. You have to hire one of them, and only one, now.

Apart from the American impulse to treat everyone as a unique individual, it must be acknowledged that the odds will bear out in the long run. To a large employer who will hire large numbers of people, the company will probably end up being more successful in the long run if it were in general to hire the children of married parents. In a highly competitive business, it might make the difference between becoming a big success and going under, thus costing all members of the organization their jobs. True, the practice of favoring such people over the offspring of single parents may lead occasionally to hiring the less effective person. And sometimes it will make no difference. But more often than not, it will benefit the company.

Let us consider the broader social impact of such discrimination. We should look carefully at both benefits and harms, for such things normally involve tradeoffs.

Allowing such discrimination, especially if it became overt, would be discouraging to many individuals. Our society has many people who cannot help the fact that they had only one parent. To tell them that their chances will always be reduced by this fact might affect their career choices and other behaviors. Some might respond by working harder to educate and prove themselves, whereas others might give up and fail to achieve up to their potential in life. The latter would contain a significant cost to society.

Discrimination would contribute to what some writers have called for, namely reviving the stigma of illegitimacy. (Indeed, it was reading such a call in another blog that prompted me to write this column.) This might put pressure on people who are not married to each other to avoid having children. Hence some people might not be born, which is a cost (certainly to those individuals, who never live), though in terms of benefiting society it could be regarded as good in two ways. First, just reducing the population growth is of value to societies as the world faces overpopulation. Second, one could argue that the next generation might become more successful overall if a higher proportion of its members were raised by two parents. Discrimination might promote arrangements in which children have two parents, which seem to be a beneficial thing for children. That would then be a net plus to society: There is no apparent downside to having more of its children raised by more parents.

Obviously I do not have a strong recommendation on this issue. I can merely foresee that it will come up and that there will be pressures and arguments on both sides. If companies and other organizations really can benefit from hiring people who were raised by more than one parent, economic competition in the marketplace will eventually lead some of them to discover this fact and use it to their advantage. If we as a society decide we want to prohibit such discrimination, we need to act proactively to prevent it.

If we do not approve of such discrimination, should the government (legislature) make and enforce laws against such discrimination? Should it thus in fact compel organizations to hire more people from broken homes than they really want to, more than it is in their best interests to hire?

Another issue that a scientist must raise is that discriminating among people based on categories effectively sorts them into two types divided by a sharp line, but in practice the lines are often not so sharp and the categories may mix very different types of people.

Although research can use broad categories such as children from two-parent families versus children from single-parent families, it is important to note that, scientifically, the boundary lines are not clear, nor are the groups necessarily homogeneous. Some people may grow up in a single-parent household because one of the parents (or both, for that matter) was a drug addict or criminal. Another may do so because a parent died serving his country in war or as a police officer or firefighter.

These mixtures of categories become more complex and relevant as we try to say just why children from single parent households do worse. The two main types of explanation would be environmental and genetic. The last time I tried to figure out which was more important in accounting for the effects on children, there were weak signs in both directions, and the mass of data was utterly inconclusive.

Environmental explanations focus on how the child is raised. The argument would in general be that two parents can do a better job than one alone. As to why, there are many different possible processes. Two parents presumably earn more money than one, so the child will have better care, better food, better opportunities. Two parents also have more time than one, so they can watch over the child more of the time, which turns out to be important not just in caring and protecting the child but also in promoting good behavior and keeping the child out of trouble. The most pressing needs of the child are to be fed and clothed and cared for, and the first parent may be fully busy trying to take care of these. The second parent can perhaps concentrate on discipline and continuity and other things that build self-control and other aspects of character.

Thus, without the second parent, the child may lack the learning of rules and other socially desirable values. I bring this up to ward off any suggestion that one should blame single parents for doing a bad job. Some do bad jobs, I suppose, but others do heroic jobs. (And probably plenty of married parents do bad jobs also!) Even if the first parent does his or her very best, however, there are likely to be some things that cannot be done as well as they could with a partner. If one difference is in teaching rules and building self-control, well, that could account for the breadth of the problems and deficits found among children of single parents. My own research into self-control has surprised me with how pervasively important it is for success in a broad range of life activities.

To the extent that environment is crucial, it becomes scientifically sloppy to put all children of single parents in the same category. Obviously, many children have now grown up with two married parents for some years and then only a single parent later on. If companies want to discriminate on the presumption that two parents are better than one, they would probably need to come up with some kind of weighted score for these in-between children to indicate what portion of upbringing was spent with two parents. And even that is not simple. Which years are most important for having two children? Does attending boarding school help make up for the lack of a parent, at least perhaps reducing the environmental deprivation?

Genetic explanations see the causes of behavior in innate, biological tendencies. At first blush it seems quite unfair to blame the child because one parent ran off and abandoned the family. But that child carries the genes of that wayward parent, and insofar as genes contribute to behavior, that child may grow up to be an adult with similar tendencies to be impulsive and irresponsible (if that was what the adult was). Here, obviously, one must make a sharp distinction between the children who had only one parent because the other was irresponsible and children who had only parent because the other parent, say, died in service of country. But adding more cases blurs that distinction: What about parents who died in traffic accidents? Do those children carry the genes of someone who was a reckless or inattentive driver, or merely of someone who happened to be a wholly innocent victim of someone else's poor driving?

I see no easy answers to these questions. Please furnish your thoughts and comments.