By: Erin Hollenkamp
The idea of a "nuclear family" has been a cornerstone of American culture since our beginnings as a nation of family farmers. Since that time, two parents running a household has been widely viewed as the desired norm, and any parent forced by circumstance to go it alone is regarded as working at a disadvantage.
New research suggests that these beliefs have less factual basis than you might expect.
According to a study by Claire Kamp Dush, an assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University, the number of parents in the house matters less to a child's success in school and/or life than the stability of what parents are around.
A single parent who remarries or moves in with a partner can provide just as much disruption to a child's life as a divorce, according to Kamp Dush.
"Based on this study, we can't say for sure that marriage will be a good thing for the children of single mothers, particularly if that marriage is unhealthy and does not last," she tells the Atlanta Jounal-Constitution.
One group bucked the overall trends seen in the study. African American children participating in the study showed a particular advantage with two parents versus just one. African American children from stable married families scored better on reading and math tests than those from single parent households.
In all other cases, children of single parents did just as well academically and behaviorally as children of married parents. Stability seems to be the most important factor.
"Our results suggest that the key for many children is growing up in a stable household, where they don't go through divorce or other changes in the family, whether that is in a single-parent home or a married home," Kamp Dush says.
Her findings appear in Marriage and Family: Perspectives and Complexities, a book Kamp Dush co-edited. In her research, she examined information gathered from almost 5,000 households across the country over at intervals over thirty years.
Past studies have shown that children growing up in married households do have an advantage, but Kamp Dush believes these studies did not properly draw a distinction between the structure of a child's family and the stability of the household.
In one aspect of her study, Kamp Dush found that in similar households distinguished only by the mother's marital status, there was little difference how the children did in school if their mother stayed single or married for the duration of the study.
"My message to single moms is to think carefully before they decide to get married or live with a partner," Kamp Dush says. "Both romantic relationships and parenting are hard work. Unless you think that you and your partner can make it for the long haul, I think it would be better for single moms to avoid moving in with romantic partners. Family transitions are hard for kids."
Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution