2 parents aren't always better

Stephanie Coontz

October 09, 1992|By Stephanie Coontz

NOW that the new fall television and political lineup is established, perhaps we can move beyond the polarized debates about single mothers that swirled around the Republican National Convention and the season opener of "Murphy Brown."

"Family values" proponents are feeling a bit defensive about the overheated rhetoric of some of their supporters. Denying that they ever intended to attack single mothers or question the validity of single-parent families, they now claim they merely want to give people "an ideal to strive for," to "rebuild a cultural consensus that children are better off in two-parent homes."

This needs to be answered seriously, despite the temptation to dismiss the issue with yet another Dan Quayle joke.

The fact is that a cultural consensus for two-parent families does exist, even if the demographic reality does not, and that is part of the problem for kids in single-parent families. For example, teachers shown a videotape of a child engaging in a variety of actions rate the child much more negatively when they are told he or she comes from a single-parent family rather than an "intact" home. Police deal more harshly with children from single-parent families.

Certainly, one-parent families have special challenges: It's hard enough for two parents to raise children in our society. But the most recent review of divorce research by the National Council on Family Relations suggests that many childhood problems usually attributed to paternal absence are the result of "more fundamental causes" such as family conflict, poverty, residential school relocation and lack of social support. These common accompaniments of single parenthood could be minimized by better education, counseling and social assistance.

True, single-mother families are especially likely to be poor, a condition associated with increased risk for school failure and juvenile crime. But this is due partly to unequal wages paid to women and partly to declining real wages for all workers, making it more difficult for one parent of either sex to support a family. And it's worth noting that a majority of the increase in family poverty since 1980 has occurred in families with both spouses present, a trend that has accelerated in the past year at the very time politicians have been so busy blaming poverty on single mothers.

For African-American families in particular, single-parent households are often the result rather than the cause of economic stress, and contrary to Dan Quayle's assertion that "marriage is the best anti-poverty program," two-parent families provide no guarantee of economic stability for children. The poverty rates of black children who live continuously with both parents for an entire decade are almost identical to those of white children who spend the same decade in a mother-only family.

Given the fact that single parenthood is likely here to stay, a more useful way to support families than preaching at them about a "cultural ideal" might be to identify which qualities of single-parent families pose problems for children's development and which offer potential strengths on which to build.

Research shows that adults in single-parent families spend less time supervising homework or interacting with teachers. But they also spend more time talking with their children than do adults in two-parent families. Single parents are less likely to pressure their children into social conformity and more likely to praise good grades. But single parents are more likely to get upset and angry when their children receive bad grades.

Rejecting moralism in favor of a more balanced approach to the strengths and weaknesses of single-parent families would also benefit many two-parent families, who often have illusions that a father's presence provides them with some magic psychological shield. In fact, two-parent families have their own potential problems. Thinking themselves complete and self-sufficient, they may not give their children enough exposure to experiences and values that differ from their own. And many fathers in two-parent families are essentially absentee fathers, spending precious little time with their children.

The idea that policy-makers can or should do little to help children other than get their parents to marry and stay together is wishful thinking -- the wishful thinking of politicians who don't want to do the hard work of rethinking America's social priorities.

Our government provides less social and financial support to families with children than any other major industrial democracy. Improving social programs for all families would be a lot more productive than piling even more guilt and censure on families with single parents, all the while pretending that two-parent families are doing so well that they don't need any help.

Stephanie Coontz is a family historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. Her book, "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap," was published this week.

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