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TIME's Misleading Cover Story on Marriage

Sometimes children from single-parent homes do just as well, or better, than children from two-parent families. Sometimes they do worse, but not "drastically" so, as Flanagan misleadingly suggests.
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There's a lot not to like in the cover story for Time written by the smugly-married Caitlin Flanagan. There is, for example, the predictable singlism (Mark Sanford's soulmate is not just a single woman but an "emotionally needy single woman," because really, what other kind could there be), the obliviousness to any moral compass other than Flanagan's own (if parents are unmarried, it is because they "simply can't be bothered to marry each other"), and more. For this post, though, I will focus on the statement that is, by scientific standards, the most egregious and indefensible:

On every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success, children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households... if you can measure it, a sociologist has; and in all cases, the kids living with both parents drastically outperform the others." (emphasis mine)

Actually, they don't.

I will draw from the most impressive studies I can find (typically, those based on large, nationally representative samples) to show that:

• Sometimes children from single-parent homes do just as well, or even better, than children from two-parent families.

• Sometimes they do worse, but not "drastically" so, as Flanagan misleadingly suggests.

• When children living with one divorced parent do worse than those from two-parent homes, sometimes they were already having problems long before their parents divorced.

• Factors such as the quality of a parent's relationship with the child and the stability in a child's life can be more powerful than the number of parents in the household.

• The simple-minded "just get (re)married" advice can be misguided.

I. Here are a few examples, from large nationally representative samples, in which children from 2-parent households hardly differed at all from the others.

• In a large, nationally representative sample of two-parent biological households, adoptive households, stepmother, stepfather, and single (divorced) mother households, there were no significant differences across the different households in the children's grades, or in the children's relationships with their siblings or their friends. What mattered to the children was whether the parents were constantly arguing with them or with each other. The authors concluded: "Our findings suggest that adoption, divorce, and remarriage are not necessarily associated with the host of adjustment problems that have at times been reported in the clinical literature...It is not enough to know that an individual lives within a particular family structure without also knowing what takes place in that structure."

• What about sex? Are adolescents who are not being raised in two-parent households having earlier and more wanton sex? [Continue reading here at the Living Single post at Psychology Today.]