Journal Issue: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Volume 15 Number 2 Fall 2005
Paul R. Amato
Why Do Single-Parent Families Put Children at Risk?
Researchers have several theories to explain why children growing up with single parents have an elevated risk of experiencing cognitive, social, and emotional problems. Most refer either to the economic and parental resources available to children or to the stressful events and circumstances to which these children must adapt.
For a variety of reasons documented elsewhere in this volume, most children living with single parents are economically disadvantaged. It is difficult for poor single parents to afford the books, home computers, and private lessons that make it easier for their children to succeed in school. Similarly, they cannot afford clothes, shoes, cell phones, and other consumer goods that give their children status among their peers. Moreover, many live in rundown neighborhoods with high crime rates, low-quality schools, and few community services. Consistent with these observations, many studies have shown that economic resources explain some of the differences in well-being between children with single parents and those with continuously married parents.44 Research showing that children do better at school and exhibit fewer behavioral problems when nonresident fathers pay child support likewise suggests the importance of income in facilitating children's well-being in single-parent households.45
Quality of Parenting
Regardless of family structure, the quality of parenting is one of the best predictors of children's emotional and social well-being. Many single parents, however, find it difficult to function effectively as parents. Compared with continuously married parents, they are less emotionally supportive of their children, have fewer rules, dispense harsher discipline, are more inconsistent in dispensing discipline, provide less supervision, and engage in more conflict with their children.46 Many of these deficits in parenting presumably result from struggling to make ends meet with limited financial resources and trying to raise children without the help of the other biological parent. Many studies link inept parenting by resident single parents with a variety of negative outcomes among children, including poor academic achievement, emotional problems, conduct problems, low self-esteem, and problems forming and maintaining social relationships. Other studies show that depression among custodial mothers, which usually detracts from effective parenting, is related to poor adjustment among offspring.47
Although the role of the resident parent (usually the mother) in promoting children's well-being is clear, the nonresident parent (usually the father) can also play an important role. In a meta-analysis of sixty-three studies of nonresident fathers and their children, Joan Gilbreth and I found that children had higher academic achievement and fewer emotional and conduct problems when nonresident fathers were closely involved in their lives.48 We also found that studies of nonresident fathers in the 1990s were more likely than earlier studies to report positive effects of father involvement. Nonresident fathers may thus be enacting the parent role more successfully now than in the past, with beneficial consequences for children. Nevertheless, analysts consistently find that many nonresident fathers are minimally engaged with their children. Between one-fourth and one-third of nonresident fathers maintain frequent contact with their children, and a roughly equal share of fathers maintains little or no contact.49 Interviews with children reveal that losing contact with fathers is one of the most painful outcomes of divorce.50
Children also thrive when their parents have a cooperative co-parental relationship. When parents agree on the rules and support one another's decisions, children learn that parental authority is not arbitrary. Parental agreement also means that children are not subjected to inconsistent discipline when they misbehave. Consistency between parents helps children to learn and internalize social norms and moral values. Another benefit of a positive co-parental relationship is the modeling of interpersonal skills, such as showing respect, communicating clearly, and resolving disputes through negotiation and compromise. Children who learn these skills by observing their parents have positive relationships with peers and, later, with intimate partners. When children's parents live in separate households, however, cooperative coparenting is not the norm. Although some parents remain locked in conflict for many years, especially if a divorce is involved, most gradually disengage and communicate little with one another. At best, most children living with single parents experience “parallel” parenting rather than cooperative co-parenting.51
Exposure to Stress
Children living with single parents are exposed to more stressful experiences and circumstances than are children living with continuously married parents. Although scholars define stress in somewhat different ways, most assume that it occurs when external demands exceed people's coping resources. This results in feelings of emotional distress, a reduced capacity to function in school, work, and family roles, and an increase in physiological indicators of arousal.52 Economic hardship, inept parenting, and loss of contact with a parent (as noted earlier) can be stressful for children. Observing conflict and hostility between resident and nonresident parents also is stressful.53 Conflict between nonresident parents appears to be particularly harmful when children feel that they are caught in the middle, as when one parent denigrates the other parent in front of the child, when children are asked to transmit critical or emotionally negative messages from one parent to the other, and when one parent attempts to recruit the child as an ally against the other.54 Interparental conflict is a direct stressor for children, and it can also interfere with their attachments to parents, resulting in feelings of emotional insecurity.55
Moving is a difficult experience for many children, especially when it involves losing contact with neighborhood friends. Moreover, moves that require changing schools can put children out of step with their classmates in terms of the curriculum. Children with single parents move more frequently than other children do, partly because of economic hardship (which forces parents to seek less expensive accommodation in other areas) and partly because single parents form new romantic attachments (as when a single mother marries and moves in with her new husband). Studies show that frequent moving increases the risk of academic, behavioral, and emotional problems for children with single parents.56 For many children, as noted, the addition of a stepparent to the household is a stressful change. And when remarriages end in divorce, children are exposed to yet more stressful transitions. Indeed, some studies indicate that the number of transitions that children experience while growing up (including multiple parental divorces, cohabitations, and remarriages) is a good predictor of their behavioral and emotional problems as adolescents and young adults.57
The “Selection” Perspective
Explanations that focus on economic hardship, the quality of parenting, and exposure to stress all assume that the circumstances associated with living in a single-parent household negatively affect children's well-being. A quite different explanation-—and the main alternative to these views-—is that many poorly adjusted individuals either never marry in the first place or see their marriages end in divorce. In other words, these people carry traits that “select” them into single parenthood. Parents can transmit these problematic traits to their children either through genetic inheritance or inept parenting. For example, a mother with an antisocial personality may pass this genetic predisposition to her children. Her personality also may contribute to her marriage's ending in divorce. Her children will thus be at risk of exhibiting antisocial behavior, but the risk has little to do with the divorce. The discovery that concordance (similarity between siblings) for divorce among adults is higher among identical than fraternal twins suggests that genes may predispose some people to engage in behaviors that increase the risk of divorce.58 If parents' personality traits and other genetically transmitted predispositions are causes of single parenthood as well as childhood problems, then the apparent effects on children of growing up with a single parent are spurious.
Because researchers cannot conduct a true experiment and randomly allocate children to live with single or married parents, it is difficult to rule out the selection perspective. Nevertheless, many studies cast doubt on it. For example, some have found significant differences between children with divorced and continuously married parents even after controlling for personality traits such as depression and antisocial behavior in parents.59 Others have found higher rates of problems among children with single parents, using statistical methods that adjust for unmeasured variables that, in principle, should include parents' personality traits as well as many genetic influences.60 And a few studies have found that the link between parental divorce and children's problems is similar for adopted and biological children— a finding that cannot be explained by genetic transmission.61 Another study, based on a large sample of twins, found that growing up in a single-parent family predicted depression in adulthood even with genetic resemblance controlled statistically.62 Although some degree of selection still may be operating, the weight of the evidence strongly suggests that growing up without two biological parents in the home increases children's risk of a variety of cognitive, emotional, and social problems.