• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 09th April, 2008

Remember: it doesn’t ever have to be like this

Certain ideas about society persist despite any amount of evidence to the contrary – for example, the one that says growing up without two parents in the home is detrimental to a child’s well-being. Such a notion might seem so logical that many would not think to check the evidence; and some of the few who do are often happier to stick with their “commonsense". Sure enough, a wide range of studies show that children living with only one parent are more likely to have mental health problems, struggle in school and behave worse than their counterparts in two-parent families. More than one politician has made the mistake of building a moralistic campaign on such findings.But look at these statistics more closely and they would see that there is only an association between single parenting and poor outcomes for kids. Studies that take properly into account the unhappy fact that single parents tend to be less well educated and to have lower incomes, and are more likely to be abusive or to use drugs than those living as couples, rarely conclude that single parenting is at the root of children’s problems. In other words, find a single parent who is educated, employed, and happy, and you will probably find well-adjusted children. On the flip side, you probably won’t make the life of a child with a disadvantaged, struggling single mother any better by finding her a spouse. [For more on such findings, see: Time to remarry politics to the evidence on family life?]For those who still cling to the promise of married or cohabiting parents for children, a New Zealand study might be the last nail in the coffin. A team of researchers led by David M. Fergusson, who directs the Christchurch Health and Development Study at the University of Otago, examined data collected over a 16-year period on 971 children who were born in Christchurch during a four month period in 1977. In short, they found that living with just one parent – regardless of how long the experience lasted or how many times their living arrangements changed – had no long-term impact on children’s mental health, educational progress, economic situation or likelihood of criminal behavior. It was the quality of parenting they received that mattered. Thus Fergusson and company suggest – as have many researchers before them – that public policies should concentrate “on the functioning of families rather than on a count of the number of parents in the home”.• Summary of “Exposure to Single Parenthood in Childhood and Later Mental Health, Educational, Economic, and Criminal Behavior Outcomes” by David M. Fergusson, Joseph M. Boden, and L. John Horwood in Archives of General Psychiatry, Volume 64, Issue 9, pp 1089–1095.

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