A Child of a Single Parent Asks, Why the Hurtful Digs?

Are the children of single parents doomed to a lesser life?

Posted Feb 28, 2013

When I talk about singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single), the people I have in mind are typically adults. Single men and single women are told, for example, that they “have issues” or that they are selfish and immature. They are often excluded from our couples-based society. And even the official laws of the nation disadvantage them.

Recently, I was reminded that it is not just the adults who have to deal with this. So do the many children of single parents. A high school student who is the daughter of a single parent recently got in touch about a paper she is writing:

“…throughout my research process for this paper I have come across many articles that stereotype children of single parents as delinquents and failures… and that these claims seem to be made without factual support.  While these claims may not have support with facts, they have the support of the general public's opinion and that is what is most hurtful.”

I don’t know her or her mother (and she wishes to remain anonymous). She read the chapter on single parents in Singled Out, as well as some of my blog posts, and wanted to know more.

I want to share some of her questions here (lightly edited), as well as some of my answers. I hope that people who read her questions will be reminded that when politicians, pundits, academics, and people from everyday life make dismissive and degrading comments about single parents and their children, there are consequences. The children are listening. They are wondering what it all means.

Here are some of her questions:

  1. Do you feel that there are any psychological effects to the children of single parents brought about because of the way they are stereotyped and how their future is portrayed?
  2. If the information and research data is out there showing that the children of single parents are not the stereotyped delinquents or “next generation of monsters,” why, in your opinion, do people still believe that the children of single parents are problematic in society?
  3. In the ninth chapter of your book Singled Out you state that “The issue, in short, is not ( just ) having too few parents, it is having too little money.” In addition to money, are there any other factors which contribute to the difficulty of being a single parent today and raising a successful child?
  4. What do you think needs to be done in order to help single parents and relieve them of the accusations that they raise less-than-fit children?

In this post, I will discuss issues raised by the first two questions. My second post will focus on the last two questions. [Here's Part 2.]

What happens, psychologically, to people who get stereotyped?

Stereotyping is one of the liveliest topics in psychology. Researchers are studying all sorts of stereotyped groups. There are literally thousands of published studies of stereotyping. So far as I know, though, there are no studies specifically of the implications of being stereotyped for the children of single parents.

Most likely, the experiences are similar to those of other stereotyped groups. Getting stereotyped hurts. Research has shown that when people feel stereotyped, they also feel more anxious, insecure, and self-conscious; they feel less genuine and less free to say how they really feel; and they also feel less powerful.

Stereotypes are also, of course, unfair. Even in instances when negative stereotypes have a grain of truth, they never apply to every person in the group. With regard to the critical descriptions of the children of single parents, the children who fit those descriptions are truly in the minority – typically, a very small minority. What people believe about the children of single parents is often, for the vast majority of those children, just plain wrong.

If it is possible to say that there is a positive consequence of getting stereotyped, it is this: People who are stereotyped most often are also most resilient. They learn how to deal with bad behaviors in ways that others do not.

As a social scientist, I like to make my arguments based on studies of thousands of people. But sometimes individual examples are telling. What did two of the last three presidents have in common? Both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were children of single parents. President Obama is not shy about saying that he wishes his father was more involved in his life when he was growing up. Yet, as he told the students, teachers, and other guests at Hyde Park Academy in his hometown of Chicago, “As the son of a single mom who gave everything she had to raise me, with the help of my grandparents, you know, I turned out O.K.

Why do so many people believe the misleading claims and why do they make such hurtful statements about single parents and their children?

When people in public life put down single parents and their children, sometimes they are doing so because they have an agenda. Conservative pro-marriage groups (which are typically advocates only for traditional marriage) are often well-funded and promoted by media-savvy spokespersons. They want to turn back the clock to a (mostly imagined) time when everyone got married, had kids they raised in a home of their own, stayed married, and then had grandkids. Sometimes the people in those groups really do have strong and sincere convictions about the proper way to live, but there is also good money in it.

The conservative pro-marriage groups aim their criticism at particular single parents – those who get divorced, or who have kids without ever marrying. I think it is shameful to stigmatize any single parents or children of single parents. There is an irony, though, in the public criticisms and dire prognoses that are made about the children of single parents. Those denigrating statements are typically sweeping ones, about all children of single parents. Particular children who might otherwise be viewed sympathetically by the stereotype-perpetrators – such as those who are being raised by one parent because the other has died, sometimes while serving the country – hear the same blanket condemnation as other children of single parents. 

To me, as a social scientist, the most disappointing force behind the stereotyping and stigmatizing of single parents and their children is the social science that is so consistently misrepresented, misunderstood, exaggerated, and distorted. Some of the people in public and private life who say, essentially, that the children of single parents are doomed to a lesser life, really believe that’s what the science says. They are wrong.

I won’t review the arguments again here, but will instead refer you to the chapter on single parents in Singled Out, and to my article, 10 things no one ever tells you about the parents of single children. I think that we should all know more about the strengths and resilience of the children of single parents. When that sort of knowledge is commonplace, then single parents will less often feel that they are being put on the defensive.

[Notes. (1) Many thanks to the student who shared her questions with me and now with you. (2) Stay tuned for Part 2: Here it is. (3) My most recent essay elsewhere: What is the cost to society of pushing women to have kids?]