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Bella DePaulo

Bella DePaulo

Posted: November 19, 2010 05:02 AM

Most headlines from the recent Pew and Time survey were some variation on "4 in 10 say marriage is becoming obsolete." The full report was titled "The decline of marriage and the rise of new families" and it described an American population not too rattled about these demographic transformations.

Asked whether the increases in various "new family types" were good, bad, or made no difference, Americans mostly shrugged. People living together without marrying? Unmarried couples raising children? Gay or lesbian couples raising children? About each of these growing trends, more than 40% said they were neither good nor bad. They really didn't care about the increase in the number of women who never have children (55% said it didn't matter) or about the rise in interracial marriages (60% shrugged).

There was, though, one big exception. Asked about the increase in single women having children, 69% of the nationwide sample said it was a bad thing.

More than a decade ago, I wasn't studying singles or their place in society. My familiarity was only with the media reports that seemed to suggest that children of single parents were at great risk for screwed up lives. I set out to read the original research reports to see just how bad things were for these kids.

I was stunned at what I found. In some studies, children of single parents did no worse than children of married parents. Sometimes, in some ways, they even did better. Yes, there are lots of studies in which children of single parents appear, at first glance, to be doing less well than children of married parents. The differences are statistically significant. Look closely, though, and often they are not big differences.

Consider, for example, the results of a nationally representative sample of 22,000 adolescents. What was the rate of drug or alcohol problems and how did it vary with the type of household? For children of married parents, the rate was 4.5%. For the children of single parents, it was 5.7%. So yes, the children of the single parents did a bit worse - by all of 1.2%. When you see headlines proclaiming that the children of single parents are doomed to addiction, remember these results. Also keep in mind that 94.3% of the children of single parents had no alcohol or drug problems. (Maybe also of interest: the kids in households with a married mom and dad did not do the best. Adolescents living with a mother, father, and another relative did - their rate of abuse was just 3.4%. Also, there's nothing magical about the number two. Father-only, for example, was better than father plus stepmother.)

Even when studies do show children of single parents faring less well than children of married parents, they often do NOT show that they fared less well because they were in a single-parent home. In cases of divorce, the studies typically do NOT show that the kids would have fared better if their miserable, bickering parents had stayed together.

Many studies comparing children from 1- vs. 2-parent homes are assessing them at just one point in time - often after a divorce. More impressive studies follow children of married parents for many years, then continue to follow them if and when the parents divorce. The results are striking. When kids are having problems after a divorce, often they were already having difficulties many years before the parents divorced. Divorce itself wasn't the cause.

There are environments that are bad for kids, but they have less to do with how many parents are raising them and more to do with the emotional and interpersonal quality of life at home. Cold and neglectful parenting is bad for kids. High levels of conflict and hostility are painful. But a stable, secure, consistent, and caring relationship with an adult? That's a good thing. A very good thing. A single parent can provide that.

I reviewed relevant studies in more detail, and explained my arguments at greater length, in the chapter on single parents in my book, Singled Out. I've kept up with relevant studies that appeared after Singled Out was published, and written about them in posts such as these:

I don't think it is ever a good time to stigmatize children of single-parent homes or their parents. The nasty, gloomy proclamations are at odds with the results of scientific research, and they set up negative expectations that can become self-fulfilling. Plus, with so many parents heading to war and not returning, do we really want to tell their kids that not only will they never see their parent again, but that they are also destined to a life of failure?

Beware of self-righteous and scientifically dubious proclamations and prejudices. Sometimes the children are listening.

[I'm also writing about the Pew report for my Living Single blog at Psychology Today. The first post is "From 'marriage becoming obsolete' report: Only 46% of singles want to marry." Posts at All Things Single (and More) may also be of interest.]