"Mom and Dad."
In our cultural fantasies, that team will always be #1 when it comes to raising happy and healthy kids. As for single moms and dads, maybe some of them are trying hard, but they are up against it, forever trying to lure their children back from the brink of addiction, aggression, and crime.
Before I read reams of scientific papers comparing children who grew up in different kinds of homes, I probably bought what the prevailing narrative was selling - the belief in the supposedly overwhelming superiority of two-parent homes. There is a certain logic to the arguments. Don't children raised by two parents have twice the love, attention, and resources than children raised by just one parent? And isn't each of the parents in a married couple all the better at parenting for having the love and support of each other?
I first started studying the original research reports when I was writing Singled Out. I read the actual studies, not just press releases. I continued to keep track of that research long after my book was published. Far from finding that the children of single parents were doomed, I instead discovered that in most ways the vast majority of them are doing just fine, and in some ways, they are doing even better than the children raised by married parents.
Here are 10 examples of ways in which the children of single parents are doing just fine. I bet you have not read about any of them in the media. (Chapter 9 of Singled Out provides many more details and lots of references.)
- On any particular measure, the vast majority of the children of single parents are doing just fine. For example, in a national survey of substance abuse among more than 22,000 adolescents from many different kinds of households, the rate of substance abuse among the children of single parents was 5.7%. That means that more than 94% of the adolescent children of single mothers did not have substance abuse problems.
- When the children of single mothers have higher rates of certain problems than do the children of married parents, often the difference is very small. In the same substance abuse study, for example, the rate for the children of married parents was 4.5%. If a study such as this one made it into the media, the headlines would probably shout, “Children of single mothers abuse drugs and alcohol.” But look at the actual numbers: 5.7% for the children of single mothers, compared to 4.5% for the children of married parents. That’s a difference of just a tad more than 1%.
- When children of divorced parents have problems, sometimes those problems started when the parents were still married. For example, researchers who followed the children of married parents for more than a decade, not knowing in advance whether the parents would stay married or divorce, found something very telling. Among those children whose parents did divorce and who had problems, sometimes their difficulties began as early as 12 years before the divorce. They were already “struggling” while their parents were married.
- Some studies of American families find no differences at all between the children of single mothers and the children from other household types. For example, in a nationally representative study of children from different kinds of households (2-parent biological, adoptive, step-father, step-mother, and single-mother), the type of household did not matter. Children’s grades, and their relationships with their siblings and their friends, were about the same. As the authors noted, “It is not enough to know that an individual lives within a particular family structure without also knowing what takes place in that structure.”
- There are factors that are more likely to put children at risk than living in a single-parent home. An important review of risky families concluded that children become vulnerable if they are raised in families “characterized by conflict and aggression and by relationships that are cold, unsupportive, and neglectful.”
- A similar conclusion comes from a study of 39 nations: Children were better off if they were raised by a single mother than by two married parents who were arguing all the time. The children also did better when raised by one divorced parent than by remarried parents.
- 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.”
- 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.
- There are ways in which the American children of single parents report more positive experiences than the children of married parents. For example, in a study in which 10- to 14-year olds were paged at random times and asked to describe (when they were with someone else) how friendly that other person was to them, the children of single parents described friendlier interactions with their parents than did the children of married parents.
- The type of household matters. One example comes from a study comparing adolescents in different kinds of one-parent, two-parent, and multi-generational households – 10 different types in all. The authors looked at rates of drinking, smoking, graduating from high school, and enrolling in college, as well as the age at which they first had sex. Of course, the usual assumption is that the children raised by married parents would do well. They did. But another group did just as well: children of divorced parents living in multi-generational households. One other group did better than all of the other nine, including the kids of married parents: adolescents of single parents who had always been single, raised in multi-generational households.
But if two-parent households have twice of everything that adults have to offer children, then why don't the children in those households do far better than the children in single-parent households? And why would they ever do the same or even worse?
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."
Sociologists who have studied single mothers of different races, classes, and sexual orientations have found that those mothers are rarely raising their children single-handedly. Instead, they have networks of friends and relatives and neighbors who care about them and their children, and have been part of their lives for years.
I agree with the traditionalists about stability: It is good for kids. So is the comfort of knowing that you can walk outside the door of your family home (or, in multi-generational households, outside the door of your bedroom) and find other adults who believe in you. Adults who have cared about you for as long as you can remember. Many children of single parents have the stability and security of a loving parent and a supportive network.
[Note: This is the first chapter (after the Introduction) of a brief new collection of articles, Single Parents and Their Children: The Good News No One Ever Tells You. If you are interested in reading more, the paperback is here and the ebook is here.]