28 May 2008

Growing Up with a Single Parent: What hurts, What helps

Dear Friends,

We at CUCP have recently come across some really interesting and insightful research on the effects of single parenting on children from the book called Growing Up with a Single Parent: What hurts, What helps by researchers Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur. Their work disaggregates the types of single parent families in a very thoughtful way: all families headed by single parents are not of one kind. Children growing up in families where their primary parent was never married have different outcomes and problems from children growing up in families of divorce and remarriage. One of the most important lessons we can learn from their work is that there are many kinds of single parents and many reasons for single parenting.

Among the findings from their research that we found particularly compelling were:

  • Low income – and the sudden drop in income that is often associated with divorce – is the most important factor in children’s lower achievement in single-parent homes, accounting for about half of the disadvantage. Inadequate parental guidance and attention and the lack of ties to community resources accounts for most of the remaining disadvantage.
  • A mother’s education is generally regarded as the single best predictor of a child’s school achievement and thus it provides a good benchmark against which to evaluate the importance of other variables. Having a mother with less than a high school degree, as compared with having a mother with a high school degree, doubles the risk of dropping out of school.
  • According to our findings, the age of the child at the time of family disruption is not related to the risk of dropping out of school or early childbearing. Children who experience family disruption before they are five years old have about the same chance of dropping out of school and having a child before age twenty as children who experience a disruption during adolescence.
  • Moreover, the number of years of exposure to single parenthood does not seem to matter either. Children who live with a single mother for less than five years are about as successful as children who live with a single mother for more than five years. Even multiple changes in the family structure do not discriminate among children from one-parent families. Children who experience two or more disruptions due to divorces and remarriages have about the same risk of dropping out of school and having a teen birth as children who experience only one disruption.
  • Income accounted for about 50% of the difference between children in single-parent and two-parent families in all three educational outcomes (test scores, college enrollment and college graduation).
  • Children from one-parent families, and especially children who do not have a step-parent attend schools with a higher percentage of minority students and minority teachers than children in two-parent families.
  • 2/3 of the difference between children in single-parent families and two-parent families is due to differences in residential mobility. The rest is due to family income. Income and residential mobility together account for all of the educational disadvantage of children living in single-parent families.

We would like for you to remember a few things from this book:

  1. Not all single parent families are alike. Never-married, divorced, remarried and step-parent families have varying effects on children.
  2. Children from single parent families have a much more difficult time in school and in life than do children from two-parent families.
  3. Disruptive events in a child’s life – whether occurring early or later on – can change the trajectory of their potential success. Income, parental involvement, mobility and social capital – the benefits that kids get from their neighborhoods and communities – are incredibly important to their overall social and academic well-being.
For more information, please contact cucp@theurbanchildinstitute.org.