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Plenty of people believe that growing up with a single parent is bad for kids — but research shows otherwise.

Go to Google Scholar, one place where peer-reviewed research congregates, and type in "single-parent families" — I dare you. You will come across a lot of studies, mostly older ones, that paint families like yours and mine in the bleakest terms. Phrases you'll encounter include "reduction in parental resources", "economic deprivation", "child psychiatric disorder", "poverty", "substance abuse", and "adolescent sexual risk-taking behaviors".

 

These older studies, which hail back to a time when "the family" was thought to mean mom, dad, and probably 2.4 kids (perhaps one boy, one girl, and a dog?) sprouted from the fertile but scientifically dubious ground of their times. Single-parent families were seen as inferior by definition, and the research focused on the problems scientists could isolate. 

Times have changed, since, and solo parenthood is on the rise. In the US, 24 percent of mothers are now raising their children alone, a figure that amounts to about nine million women, while around seven percent of dads are going it alone. You'd think that the fact that there are more single parents today would also translate to decreased stigma, but that's not necessarily the case. Three quarters of married folks still think single parenting is bad for children and bad for society, research shows, while about a third of unmarried people share this view. (Hey, for reference, 41 percent of married adults also think it's bad for mothers of young kids to hold jobs outside of the home, so do with their opinions what you will.)

Are you a single mother or father? It's going to be hard to completely escape the idea that your family setup is somehow inferior. This may, itself, have an influence on how you perceive the quality of your life, without ever actually changing your circumstances. Newer research, however, offers insights that can help you let go of the idea that single parenting is necessarily bad for your kids' emotional development. 

How does growing up in a single-parent household impact a child's wellbeing?

Research from the University of Sheffield, in the United Kingdom, investigated how growing up in a single-parent household affected children's emotional wellbeing in detail. In doing so, they compared families that were always headed by a single parent to those who were previously but no longer single-parent households and families that always featured two parents. "Wellbeing" was measured by looking at life satisfaction among children, their feelings towards their families, and the quality of their relationships with their peers. 

The study found that:

  • Children who have been part of a single-parent family had higher life satisfaction than their peers. 
  • Children at least partially raised in a single-parent family had more positive views about their own family. 
  • Children who have been or continue to be part of single-parent families have less problematic relationships with their peers. 
  • The differences were big enough to be statistically significant — meaning it's unlikely that the children who were studied just randomly happened to feel this way, and it's likely that being part of a single-parent family had a positive impact on these aspects of life. 

Single parents: Not necessarily alone!

Conjure a picture of a single mom or dad raising a child completely alone, and it's easy to conclude that this must be inferior in some ways. One adult usually makes less money than two could, after all, and financial struggles — rather than single parenthood directly — can lead to poorer-quality nutrition, less access to educational resources, less social inclusion, and a myriad of other not-such-great things. When there's only one parent, chances are smaller that a child will receive the one-on-one parental attention that is so good for them. If a single parent becomes chronically ill or passes away, a child doesn't automatically have another parent as a "backup" to ensure their needs are met. 

This picture is, the study found, not necessarily accurate at all. Being part of a "single-parent family" doesn't mean that children have only one adult in their lives who actually cares for them. Rather, the research revealed that grandparents are particularly likely to take on an active role in single-parent families, both offering practical help (such as shopping and financial support) and emotional support, like participating in childcare. What's more, the paper discovered that romantic breakups don't necessarily mean that a child loses contact with the other parent, or lacks their emotional involvement. One of the conclusions the authors reached, given all they found, is that policy makers ought to stop focusing on the perceived problems of single parenthood. 

How to make the best of your life as a single parent

Another study examined the characteristics of healthy single-parent families. This is helpful, because even if research concludes that single-parenting places your children at a disadvantage, you cannot simply change your family setup, especially once you take into account that step parenting can lead to its own unique challenges. Knowing what makes for successful single-parent families can allow you to gage how well you're doing as well as taking steps to make your family life better than it currently is.

The insights included:

  • Higher socioeconomic status doesn't necessarily mean better mental and physical health, and in fact, lower-socioeconomic status families were more likely to have children in greater physical health. (Encourage your child to be physically active, and you'll be contributing to their health!)
  •  Families with healthy communication styles who have long, open, and honest communication do better than those who don't talk a lot. (This probably also means these families tend to spend more time together, since that's required to be able to talk.)
  • Families with larger informal support networks — in the form of friends, relatives, teachers, the community — do better than those with less social support to rely on. 
  • Single parents often develop good problem-solving skills and instill these skills in their children as well. This doesn't necessarily lead to better mental and physical health, but can be useful in any case. 

In conclusion

While the struggles single-parent families can face can certainly impact a child's emotional development negatively, the simple fact that a child is being raised by one parent doesn't mean they lose out developmentally. In fact, research shows that children of single parents tend to have higher emotional wellbeing than those raised in other kinds of families. Single parents can leave the outdated idea that they could never do as good a job as two married parents behind once and for all, and instead work on making their family the best possible environment for their kids

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