It Takes a Single Person to Create a Village

Create a village - take your nieces and neighbors to work.

Posted Apr 21, 2008

There are some studies you will probably never read about in the mainstream media. They may have been published in the most selective and prestigious professional journals. The findings may be important, even provocative. Still, they stay in their place, nestled in pages read only by people to whom phrases such as "ordinary least square regression" are, well, ordinary.

The problem is that the findings do not fit the conventional wisdom of our time. We have no mental hooks on which to hang them. Take, for instance, a study about single parenting and reading performance published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The author, Hyunjoon Park, compared the reading scores of 15-year olds in single-parent vs 2 biological parent households, in five Asian countries. In only one of them, Japan, did the children in 2-parent families read significantly better than the children in single-parent families. In fact, in two of the countries, Thailand and Indonesia, the children from single-parent households were actually BETTER readers than the children from 2-parent households.

To many Americans, it seems nonsensical that children from single-parent families could ever outperform children from 2-parent families. After all, don't the children living with two parents have twice the love, attention, resources, and help with their homework as the children of single parents?

Traditional nuclear families have been so sentimentalized in American society that when we think of them, we immediately leap to a fantasy of two fully engaged and available adults who lavish their love and attention on one another and the children in a home free of anger, conflict, or recriminations.

In contrast, we imagine the children of single parents trudging home after school, latchkey in hand, glumly tossing a backpack into a tiny, wretched apartment. In the movie in our minds, the kids then plop on the couch to watch TV until a harried mom finally makes it home from work, way too exhausted and too poor to put a decent dinner on the table.

Both images are caricatures, and in my book, SINGLED OUT, I explain the many misrepresentations and misunderstandings that stand in the way of a more informed and enlightened view of different family forms. Here, I want to focus on just one myth about the children of single parents - that they have only one adult in their life who pays attention to them, cares about them, and loves them.

Park posed an intriguing explanation for why children of single parents are such good readers in Indonesia and Thailand - they have an extended family network of people who help them and care about them. Sociologists in the United States who have studied single mothers (such as Rosanna Hertz and Faith Ferguson) have also found that single parents are rarely raising their children single-handedly. Instead, they have a whole ensemble of friends, relatives, and neighbors who are invested in their lives and the lives of their children.

I've been thinking about these issues lately because of an e-mail I received from Paula Otero, who hosts "Women and Success," an online magazine and blog. Paula is a single woman with no children who would love to bring her 12-year old niece to work this Thursday (April 24), the annual "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work" day. She is a true believer in the importance of expanding children's horizons and in the power of mentoring. Paula also adores her niece, and believes the child would greatly appreciate and benefit from a day at work with her aunt.

The problem is that in Paula's workplace, only mothers and their daughters are welcome to participate in the day's activities. It is true that when the Ms. Foundation initiated the event in 1993, it was called "Take Our Daughters to Work." Since 1993, though, the program has been expanded to include boys as well.

Even more important - especially in a blog about Living Single - is this note that I found on the website of the Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Foundation:

"When we say ‘Our Daughters and Sons,' we mean more than our own children. [The Foundation] encourages workplaces and individuals to ensure all our nation's daughters and sons participate in the program by inviting children from housing authorities and shelters, nieces and nephews, neighbors and friends, and more, to join them."

Although I have been focusing on the children of single parents, it is not just those kids who are likely to benefit from the nurturing and attention and love of adults other than their parents. I, a lifelong single person, grew up in an Italian Catholic home with two parents who married in 1949 and stayed that way until my dad died more than forty years later. Every occasion, from Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter, through birthdays and First Holy Communions and Confirmations and graduations, was marked by a gathering of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and neighbors and friends. (On New Years Eve, party hats were also included, as were rum cookies that were more rum than cookie.) I don't think it ever occurred to me that the sleepovers at the homes of favorite relatives - occasions that my three siblings and I found so exciting - were probably special events for our parents as well.

So this Thursday, if your own workplace planners have not yet caught up with the new American spirit, let them in on it (ever so politely, of course). Tell them that you value the contemporary version of the Day, in which all children (and not just biological offspring) are welcome at work, and all of the workers who love children (and not just the parents) are encouraged to bring a special little guest. Sometimes it takes a single person, without children of his or her own, to create a village.

One more thing. Let's not forget that there are many people, both single and coupled, who are not so enamored of children. In the spirit of Bill Maher, let me suggest a New Rule: You do not need to bring any children to work, and you only need to give that "oh, how cute!" look once, then you are covered for the entire day.