The proportion of children living in single-parent families has increased noticeably around the world since 1960, and this increase has been particularly noteworthy in the United States. The United States has a higher proportion of single-parent households than that of any other developed country. The proportion of children in the United States living with merely one parent amplified from nine percent in 1960 to thirty percent in 1997. Although there are differences in the occurrence of single-parent families across ethnic groups, with nearly forty-seven percent of African American children living in single-parent families, this increase had an effect on all groups of Americans (U. S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). Given present divorce and remarriage trends, demographers envisage that more than half of all America’s children will spend some part of their formative years in a single-parent family.
A broad range of research from sociologists and psychologists has revealed that children of single-parent families are more probable to have difficulties with emotional as well as psychological adjustment and with school performance and educational attainment, and they are as well more probable to have behavioral adjustment problems, later marriage, and earlier childbearing compared with children of two-parent families. Since single-parent children come into view more vulnerable to a wide variety of societal problems, these children have been regularly referred to as at risk for developmental difficulties. Though, new studies that have appeared within the past decade are raising questions regarding these families and whether or not children growing up in single-parent families are necessarily at risk, mainly in the child’s early years.
To say that a child is at risk is a statistical statement, representing that, probabilistically speaking, children in single-parent families are usually more probable to have developmental difficulties than other children are. One of the causes children from single-parent families may be at risk is that single-parent families are as well disproportionately poor compared with other families. According to the research, no other major demographic group is so poor and no other group stays poor for so long. International studies demonstrate that poverty rates are higher among children in single-parent families than those in all other family types in every country studied.
Data from the 2000 census point out that thirty-four percent of single-parent homes headed by a woman and sixteen percent of single-parent families headed by a man live in poverty. As a result of poverty alone, many children of single parents grow up in deteriorated and dangerous neighborhoods, frequently with inferior housing and educational systems. How much of the single-parent risk status is related to poverty and how much of the single-parent risk status is because of other factors too associated with single-parent families are questions with significant psychological and social policy implications.
More and more, signs have emerged that perceptions and acceptance of single-parent families are changing. Increasingly single-parent families are emerging very obviously on the national scene, and the public has turn out to be more accustomed to seeing them. When Ingrid Bergman conceived a child out of wedlock in 1950, writers of the movie star columns were aghast, and Ingrid Bergman was efficiently blackballed for almost a decade from the American screen. In the 1990s, derision and concern greeted the television character Murphy Brown’s birth of her out-of-wedlock child. Though, in the year 2000, Madonna, a real-life rock star, birthed a baby son Rocco, and the event was greeted with as much joy and interest as the birth of any baby to a prominent rock star. Soon after Rocco’s birth, Madonna married the child’s father; there may have been more interest in Madonna’s following marriage than in the birth of her child. Could this be pinpointing of a changing view of nonmarital births? Could public perceptions of social clocks and developmental sequences of “first marriage, then baby carriage” be changing at the start of the twenty-first century? Could changes in public views of births to single parents as well be related to changes in our understanding of the risks related to growing up in a single-parent home?
To untie the multiple factors that may be related to our understanding of whether or not children of single-parent families are at risk, it is essential to recognize the many similar and different characteristics of single-parent families. One of the most significant characteristics of single-parent families and their children is their heterogeneity. Though about half of all children growing up in single-parent families live in poverty, several do not. In the same way, contrary to stereotypical views and journalistic ravings, not all single-mother families are on welfare. While many single mothers draw funds from public assistance, more than half do not.
The phenomenological experience of growing up in a single-parent family varies depending on the nature of the family, the experiences of the parent, plus the family context. Single parents may be divorced, widowed, or unmarried; they may be teenaged or older; they may have been previously married or not. Even though most single parents are women, the number of male single parents is increasing. While legally single, some parents classified by Census statisticians and researchers as single may be living in a committed, partnered relationship not lawfully acknowledged. These statistically single parents are frequently rearing their children in the context of a committed, partnered relationship. For some single parents, becoming a single parent could have been a planned and conscious decision; for others it was not.
Some single parents may have chosen to have and to rear their children with another adult parent; they became single parents when this partnership did not work out, ensuing in divorce, separation, or widowhood. Further single parents may have decided to become parents knowing that they would be without partners. The unity across these varied types of single parents is that the parent does not have a legally married partner in the home. How these individuals came to be parents, the choices they made, as well as the experiences that were thrust on them, all have differential implications for their family’s life circumstances.
Differences in how the parents came to be single parents have an effect on individuals’ employment, their financial circumstances, their relationships with other adults, their involvement with their child, and their competence as parents. The etiology of the parent’s single parenthood as well may have implications for the child’s perceptions and experiences growing up. For instance, imagine that ten children from different types of single-parent families are brought together to talk about their experiences. They would explain many common experiences, such as not having enough money, missing their mothers or fathers, plus problems getting along with their single parent. These concerns, though, do not differ from those of children living in all families. Those issues that are sole to single-parent families are issues for which there are large individual differences across single-parent families. Depending on their age, children from lately divorced single-parent families might talk of anger at their parents’ separation, of fights between mom and dad over custody and child support, and regarding what happens on dad’s day for visitation.
Some children of divorce may wonder why dad and mom are not living together anymore; others may be relieved to be free lastly from the marital discord. Children of widowed single parents may be mourning their parent’s loss, while children of adolescent single mothers may have difficulty with mom’s inexperienced as well as immature ways and wonder when mom will ever finish going to school. Children of never-married mothers might wonder about their father, who he is, and what he is like. Some children may be confused regarding who their fathers are, and why they are not around, while other children, although a minority, may be learning to live without a mother. Some children may feel isolated and alone, while others are living in cramped households, with not too much in the way of material goods however plenty of people to be with and love. Researchers need to unravel these various psychological experiences to recognize what it is about the single-parent family that might contribute to the at-risk status of these children.
Children are often less cared for and more overburdened by accountabilities following divorce. Needy, distressed, lonely, or angry parents possibly will force children into the role of servant, caretaker, adviser, confidant, helper, defender, or arbitrator. Some accountability and nurturing of others may improve development and show the way to more responsible, competent, empathic behavior in adulthood, particularly in daughters. Excessively high demands may show the way to competence and responsibility accompanied by feelings of self-doubt, sadness, low self-esteem, a lurking sense of failure, and apprehension regarding performance and personal adequacy in young adult daughters. In analyses of adjustment, divorced girls were more probable than nondivorced girls to fall into a cluster labeled “Competent at a cost,” typified by low antisocial behavior, high social and cognitive agency, and high social accountability however as well by elevated depression and low self-worth. Girls with highly emotionally parentifying mothers were overrepresented in this cluster.
Boys are less probable to be leaned on for emotional support by parents, and moderate levels of both instrumental and emotional parentification can augment accountability in adult sons. Though, boys are more sensitive than girls to emotional parentification by fathers and are more probable to resist, rebel, and withdraw from the family when extreme paternal emotional parentification or instrumental parentification occurs, while they also are often anxious and depressed. Although divorced parents may lean on children, children cannot resolve their parents’ problems or save a lonely, unhappy, angry, or distressed parent. The costs to children may be great in the loss of normal childhood experiences and pleasures and opportunities for individuation and liberty from an entangled relationship. (Gringlas, M., and Weinraub, M, 1995)