People Let Me Tell You ‘Bout Children Of ‘Single Parents’

19 Jul

Periodically a new study is published about the affects of single parenting on children. The results (either pursued or emphasized) are pretty much tied to the times. Studies today often highlight the economic hardship and handicap of single parenting. When pop-psychology was king (I’m okay, you’re okay, anyone?) the happiness of the child and later social adjustment were measured. The common thread in most of these studies is; “How does the child fare later on?” Very few studies, whether looking to support the researcher’s thoughts on money and happiness or not, ever looked beyond a headcount. It is rare to see a study that takes into consideration (or has any interest in) what the actual parenting situation is for the child.

“Child of a single parent” can have multiple meanings, among them are; 1) the parent could be recently widowed and the child was raised by two parents at some point or 2) the parent might be divorced and there is a non-custodial parent very much involved in the child’s life. There are studies that might even “overlook” the fact that non-married people (of the same gender or not) are raising a child together, and consider the child to be of a single parent. Certainly many researchers reporting on the permanent scarring and emotional handicap of parents’ divorcing never discuss remarriage. “A child of divorce” could easily be raised by two parents in the home if there is a remarriage. The actual details of a child’s upbringing and parentage seem too complex for these studies. A cynic would deduce that these studies exist to reinforce a researchers’ interest in making people feel badly about their life. A less cynical person would theorize that these broad generalizations are useful to someone somewhere.

There is a recent trend of people intentionally parenting alone. Tragedy has not befallen them nor has abandonment. These people, for various reasons have pursued single parenthood. Within this category alone, are variations that might boggle the average social researcher. These single parents may be men or women of any and every socio-economic background and age. They may have adopted babies or hard to place children. They may have become pregnant (more than once) with a partner they did not marry. They may have orchestrated a pregnancy (either genetically related or not) with medical assistance. Clearly there are more meaningful factors in these child’s future outcomes than how many adults are in the home. Should the biological child of a single 16 year old parent be seen as “starting from the same place” as the adopted child of a 50 year old? Maybe.

As a culture we’ve progressed in how we define ‘family.’ At the same time marriage is becoming more inclusive it is also becoming less relevant for others. Remarriage, blended families, birth parents, and donor parents are all in the mix now. Is there a way to talk about children of single parents in any meaningful way? Is it even meaningful to try? I think we’d all agree that the more caring, consistent and attentive adults in a child’s life the better. Most of us would also agree that a child who grows up in a home with an emphasis on education will do better in school. Money will always matter, and a child whose families’ financial life is precarious will probably not do as well as one raised in a financially stable home. What more do we need to know?


Posted by on July 19, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique


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5 responses to “People Let Me Tell You ‘Bout Children Of ‘Single Parents’

  1. Drew Merkle

    July 19, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    I hope nobody has misunderstood me regarding my earlier post. I completely agree that policies should be updated to make things better for both child and single parent. Equal pay for equal work, maternity leave, and so on. And the need for that is long overdue. Still, I feel very deeply for those I know personally who are having to go it alone right now, a number of whom did so by choice and who are now finding themselves financially strapped, emotionally spent, and just plain exhausted. Children are our future, and it really does take a village, so how can we make it possible for the community to help? I guess what I’m saying is I really wish there were enough resources that being a single parent would become a distinction without a difference. Hope that makes sense.

  2. Kate Woods

    July 19, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Brenda, Amen! It is not uncommon now for a “single parent” to be so by choice; our public polices need to reflect that. For example, there are significant differentials in, at minimum, in the economic needs of a child born to a 16 year old single uneducated mother than one born to a 40 year old single professional mother.

    • brendatobias

      July 19, 2012 at 9:52 am

      I couldn’t agree more! Even in the 1970s it was pretty meaningless to talk about “children of divorce.” What does that mean? The fact that a child’s parents divorced could end up being the least significant factor in their upbringing. I guess I’m just not a fan of reductionism and/or generalizations in any form. I could get quite cynical and point out the rather sexist bent to this kind of research. But I won’t.

  3. Drew Merkle

    July 19, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Most reputable studies will clearly define their methodologies, so it’s not all that hard to determine what definition of “single-parent family” is being used for a particular study. That being said, the mass media does a really bad job of reporting such things.

    What is really sad is the number of children who are stuck in a situation with not enough money or attention these days, regardless of how it is actually counted by the census bureau or otherwise. All too often one parent doesn’t take responsibility financially or otherwise, and the other parent is left to cope alone. And in recent decades there is less chance of meaningful help from grand parents, unfortunately.

    Let us not forget the sad situations where one parent has had to leave the other due to physical or emotional abuse, or due to substance abuse issues. It’s a catch 22 for both parent and children.

    What is puzzling is the number of women who fool themselves into thinking it’s a good idea to go it alone. Yes, there are those celebrities who, with their entourages, can do a fine job, but outside the bubble, it isn’t like that.

    Whether the mom is an over-tired professional or works shifts at the local discount store before going to work at the gas station all night, the children are still getting far less than half the attention they’d get with two parents. If they’re lucky, it’s a string of nannies and baby sitters. If they’re not lucky, it’s under-funded after school programs or worse. Hardly enough mommy and me time. Furthermore, they are missing out on learning how to have a successful relationship from parental role models.

    Your point, that the child will not do as well, is a very good one. And what does that mean for society as a whole?

    • brendatobias

      July 19, 2012 at 8:58 am

      While I agree that methodologies are often published, those methods are far from inclusive (for the most part.) Looking at children in terms of how many parents are in the house is somewhat meaningless. Looking at children according to levels of income could be Very meaningful. Women or men choosing to parent alone may in fact provide a far more stable and enriching childhood than married couples. There are happily married, financially stable parents who are neglectful and dreadful parents. There are simply far too many variables (in human beings and circumstances) to talk about “children of single parents” in any meaningful way. In my humble opinion.


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