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In Praise of Single Mothers: Here's What They Do Right

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?
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"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, well 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 both political parties were 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?

So I wasn't surprised when the results of 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, considering the rhetoric about single parenting, I was struck by how few of the children of single mothers had substance problems -- 5.7% -- and how similar the number was for the children of two biological parents -- 4.5%. A difference of about one percentage point is not a very big return on twice the love, attention, and resources.

It's not that two was 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.

What about grades? Relationships with siblings and friends? There's research on those questions, too. In a nationally representative sample of many different kinds of households -- two-parent biological households, single-mother households, adoptive households, stepmother, and stepfather households -- there were no differences at all. What mattered was NOT how many parents there were, or whether the parents were biologically related to the children. Instead, whether children had problems with their grades or with their siblings or friends depended on whether there was a lot of conflict within families, high levels of disagreements between parents, or endless arguments between parents and kids.

Sometimes children of single parents do better than children of married parents. For example, a study of hundreds of 10- to 14-year olds and their parents showed that in their day-to-day lives, single parents were friendlier to their children than were married parents. The children of single parents also spent more time with people in their extended families than did the children of married parents.

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 my book, 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 created and maintained 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 and have 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.

[Full references to all of the studies described here are in the Notes and Bibliography of Singled Out.]

Postscript to original post: Thanks to everyone who mentioned single fathers. I agree that they deserve credit and recognition, too. My original post appeared on Mother's Day, and that's why it was about single mothers. It is also true, as one of the comments suggested, that there is much less research on single fathers than on single mothers.