The one-parent family is not so bad, study finds 2,600 surveyed on the state of the American family.

November 21, 1991|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

Single parents who marry to give their children a better family life may be kidding themselves.

While stepfamilies are usually stronger economically, they are weaker emotionally than families with just one parent, concludes a new report assessing the quality of family life.

The report, released today by the National Commission on Children, looks at America's families through the eyes of 1,700 white, black and Hispanic parents and 900 of their children, ages 10 to 17.

Much of the study paints a positive picture of family life: 97 percent of the parents interviewed said their relationships with their children were good or excellent, and 94 percent of the children said their mothers were "special adults who care about them."

"It's a picture that looks good on the surface," says Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University and the author of several books on families. "But it looks worse the deeper you dig."

Cherlin cites the number of parents -- from 4 percent to 29 percent, depending on income -- who said they worry a lot about JTC their children being shot and the 47 percent of children who said they "wish their parents were stricter or more attentive."

"Many teens are hoping their parents will do a better job of monitoring their activities," he says.

Most surprising, perhaps, is the picture of life in many stepfamilies that emerges from "Speaking of Kids, A National Survey of Children and Parents."

"Though stepfamilies generally reported greater economic security than single-parent families," the commission concluded, "their responses to questions about the quality of parent-child relationships, the amount of time parents and children spend together and the level of parental involvement in a child's school and extracurricular activities often indicated less emotional security and less closeness than was the case in single-parent families."

Such findings are important because of the rapidly expanding role of stepfamilies -- there are 1,300 new ones every day and one in every five children under age 18 is a stepchild, says the Stepfamily Association of America in Lincoln, Neb.

How do stepfamilies compare with intact families and one-parent families?

* Fifty-four percent of happily married parents in stepfamilies said they had an excellent relationship with their children. But 78 percent of parents in intact families and 64 percent of the single parents said they had excellent relationships with their children.

* Although nearly all children in stepfamilies said their mothers "really" cared about them, 39 percent said they wanted more time with their mothers. That compares with 14 percent of children in intact families and 21 percent of children in one-parent households who want more time with their mothers.

* Eighteen percent of children in stepfamilies said their mothers "often miss" important events, compared with 5 percent in intact families and 13 percent in single-parent households.

* When it came to fathers, 44 percent of children in stepfamilies said their dads "often miss" important events, while 10 percent of children in intact families and 33 percent of youngsters in single-parent households had that complaint.

Financially, however, the picture is brighter for stepfamilies:

* Twenty-one percent of parents in stepfamilies said they "worried all or most of the time that their incomes will not meet expenses." Among intact families, 22 percent had that worry. Among single parents, 55 percent.

Income levels show why.

Six percent of stepfamilies reported annual incomes under $10,000, compared with 2 percent of intact families but 23 percent of single parents.

"Five to 10 years ago, we thought remarriage solved many of the problems divorce causes children," says Cherlin, whose most recent book is "Divided Families, What Happens to Children When Parents Part."

More and more, though, he adds, "it looks like stepfamilies can cause problems."

While the new findings are consistent with other studies, Cherlin says, the commission, which has been studying family life for 2 1/2 years, presents "a broader picture of what parents and kids are ** thinking."

The survey says that many parents -- intact, single and step -- are dissatisfied with "the amount of family time they have," but that 70 percent said they play a game or a sport with their children at least once a week. Eighty-six percent said they read to younger children at least once a week.

The survey said that parents and children worry about many of the same things, including acquired immune deficiency syndrome, drugs and being shot or molested. The worries were strongest among poor, urban families.

In "Speaking of Kids," the commission also released a separate survey of nearly 1,400 adults, with and without children, that gives a more general -- and more pessimistic -- view of families.

Eighty-eight percent of these respondents said it's more difficult to be a parent today; 81 percent said parents do not spend enough time with their children; 76 percent said parents don't know where their children are, and 33 percent said children today "receive less love, care and attention from their parents than did children a decade ago."

Cherlin explained the disparity between surveys this way: "People's attitudes about families are like people's attitudes about Congress. Congress stinks, they say, but my representative is pretty good."

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