New Scientist

Saturday, October 16, 1999

One's enough

Kids raised by single parents do just as well as other children

Robert Adler
New Scientist

SOME POLITICIANS blame single mothers for a host of society's ills. But the latest research shows that children from single-parent homes often get off to a good start in life--and if they don't, the main factor seems to be their mothers' level of education, not the absence of a father.

In Britain, one in five children is born into a home where their mother is not living with a male partner. In the US, the figure is almost one in three. And some research has backed the popular impression that children raised by lone parents are more likely to do badly in school than those from traditional two-parent families.

Now Henry Ricciuti, a developmental psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has completed one of the largest and best-controlled studies into the issue. He concludes that much of the previous work is misleading, because it confuses the effects of lone parenthood with that of the mothers' level of education and their coping skills.

Ricciuti tested 1700 children between six and eight years old whose mothers were participating in a long-term, multiethnic study of young people. Children raised by lone mothers did just as well on vocabulary, reading and mathematics as those from two-parent families. And the single mothers didn't report any more behavioural problems in their youngsters than mothers living with a partner (Journal of Family Psychology, vol 13, p 450). "I did not find any evidence for single parenthood being a risk in its own right," Ricciuti says. "The question is, how come?"

When Ricciuti looked at single-parent families in more detail, he found that two factors predicted how well the youngsters did in school: their mothers' education and their "general ability", based on a standard measure of problem-solving skills.

The children Ricciuti studied all had relatively young mothers--on average, they had given birth at 20 years old. In contrast to some previous studies, there was no tendency for the mothers living with a partner to have spent longer in education and have had their children later.

The single-parent families did differ in one important way: more than half of them fell below the poverty line, twice the rate of the two-parent families. Since many other studies have found that poorer children do worse on tests of their educational attainment and have more behaviour problems, Ricciuti's results are even more surprising. "Although these mothers are much poorer, their children are still not showing bad effects," he says. Ricciuti concludes that a mother's level of education and her coping skills can outweigh the effects of poverty, at least for younger children.

Marsha Weinraub, a developmental psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, applauds Ricciuti's findings. "They're important because they fly in the face of our stereotypes and easy explanations," she says. She has done smaller studies and obtained similar results. "At least until they enter school, these kids don't seem to be different from children in two-parent families."

Weinraub says it's not clear whether this remains the case as children get older. "Something may happen to these kids after they enter school," she says. "But it's dangerous to conclude that they are automatically at risk."

Robert Adler

From New Scientist, 16 October 1999

© Copyright New Scientist, RBI Limited 1999