The Effects of Single Parenting on Child Development

Story by: Ellie Stevens


Visuals by: Noah Weinberg


Date: 7/21/21

The typical American family structure is changing. In the 1960s, the median age for marriage was 20 for females and 23 for males. However, by 2012, these figures increased to 27 for females and 29 for males and have continued to rise.

Today, one in five adults older than 25 have never been married, up from approximately one in ten adults in the 1960s. As a result, the number of children living in two-parent households has declined. This ever-expanding single-parent family dynamic poses a variety of developmental effects on children, most of which are unfavorable.

As past studies and data have shown, parental support and supervision enhance children’s well-being. Generally speaking, single parents monitor their children less attentively due to alternate responsibilities, namely occupation. They tend to know less about their children’s whereabouts, companions, and activities when compared to parents in a relationship who have the benefit of shared responsibilities.

Single parents also tend to be less involved in their child’s school activities and set lower academic expectations.

Inadequate parental monitoring has proven to be one of the most impactful predictors of youth involvement in behavioral problems. According to recent studies, children raised by a single parent are more than twice as likely to be arrested for a juvenile crime, twice as likely to receive treatment for behavioral and emotional problems, and three times more likely to drop out of high school than kids from families with two parental figures. Children with a single parent are also more likely to perform poorly in school and not achieve a degree.

These developmental effects mostly derive from the economic hardship commonly experienced by single parents. In 2012, the poverty rate for children in single-parent families was triple that of children in two-parent families: 42 percent of children in single-parent families experienced poverty compared to only 13 percent in two-parent families. Additionally, families headed by a single mother are more likely to live in poverty because of insufficient benefits provided by the state, the lower-earning capacity of single mothers, and the frequent lack of child support provided by the father. Approximately one in ten married couples with children lives in poverty compared to one in two families headed by a single mother. As a result of these financial difficulties, single-parent families often experience further challenges such as food insecurity and absence of health care.

In one recent study, lack of income was the most critical factor in accounting for the differences in children from single-parent and intact families. In another study measuring child cognitive development, families’ reduced economic circumstances was behind almost all of the relationships between single parenthood and childrens’ verbal cognitive outcome. Financial hardships contribute to decreased parental supervision and educational resources as well as increased stress and day-to-day difficulties. These factors primarily contribute to the often unfavorable development of children from single-parent families.

Understanding the effects of familial instability on children remains vital in planning programs and policy making. The data suggests that in order to promote healthy children and families, policies should be comprehensive and cover multiple risk factors in development. However, supporting income remains the most impactful policy response in improving outcomes for children from single-parent families.


Sources:

"The Rise in Single‐Mother Families and Children’s Cognitive Development: Evidence From Three British Birth Cohorts"
"The Rise of Single Parent Households: Effects, Risks and Available Assistance"
"Why Single Parenthood Affects Children"
"Do children in two-parent families do better?"