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Children of single parents more at risk, UVa study finds

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Posted: Saturday, August 11, 2012 6:49 pm | Updated: 3:38 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

It is not uncommon for a child in today’s society to be raised in a single-parent household, but Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says that children growing up in such a family structure are more likely to struggle with hardships such as delinquency or teenage pregnancy.

“Most kids who are raised by single parents turn out OK. The flip side of that coin is kids who are raised in single-[parent] families are two to three times more likely to drop out of high school, for instance,” Wilcox said, adding that boys raised in single-parent families are more than twice as likely to be arrested by age 30.

Wilcox, who was raised in a single-parent household himself, stressed that single parents are not steering their children toward “unmitigated disaster.”

“I think both my sister and I turned out well and without any major adolescent or young adult problems,” he said.

UVa psychology professor Robert Emery said that having two parents in a household is beneficial for parents and children, alike.

“It’s nice to have someone play the bad cop so you get to be the good cop every once in a while,” Emery said.

Wilcox noted that in today’s economy, it is especially helpful to have two incomes to support the family, to pay for things such as summer camp or after-school tutors.

“Raising children is a challenge and an enterprise. Having two people involved in that enterprise will typically make it easier,” he said.

Emery echoed that statement.

“My work … shows that, on average, if possible, kids fare best in a happy, functioning two-parent family, but that doesn’t mean that kids from divorced or single parents are somehow doomed to have psychological problems. In fact, most do just fine,” he explained.

Emery noted that children of single parents may act out or make poor decisions not because they were raised in single-parent households, but because of the example set by their parents.

“Is it because their parent was single, or is it because their parent was a delinquent themselves?” Emery asked, suggesting that being raised in a single-parent household may correlate with, rather than cause, behavior problems in children and teenagers.

The 2011 State of Our Unions report from the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values says that highly educated Americans are the most marriage-minded and enjoy the most successful marriages. The study says that “highly educated Americans (and their children) adhere devoutly to a ‘success sequence’ norm that puts education, work, marriage and childbearing in sequence, one after another, in ways that maximize their odds of making good on the American Dream and obtaining a successful family life.”

The study also indicated that 76 percent of daughters born to highly educated mothers said they would be embarrassed by a teenage pregnancy, compared with 61 percent of daughters born to moderately educated mothers and 48 percent of daughters born to mothers without high school diplomas.

“We still find that happy marriage has some benefits,” Emery said, but added that “the ‘happy’ part is important.” Children raised in “relatively happy, well-functioning” single-parent families will “do better” than children with unhappily married parents, he said.

“It’s important to acknowledge that sometimes parents should part ways, especially in cases of abuse or adultery,” Wilcox noted.

Wilcox said that divorced fathers are more likely to stay in touch with their children than fathers who never married their children’s mothers.

“Kids in married households do better than kids in cohabiting households,” he added.

Wilcox also noted that marriage trends are changing in middle- and working-class families.

“We’re seeing a retreat from both secular and religious civic engagement [among middle- and working-class people],” he said. Marriage rates have been declining for couples without high school diplomas since the 1970s, he said, adding that couples with high school diplomas but without college degrees have seen declining marriage rates over the past 20 years, as well.

Meanwhile, nonmarital birth rates are increasing among both poor and middle-class families.

“There is a growing marriage divide in America, and that’s true in Central Virginia, as well,” he said, adding that the marriage divide has roots in financial stability.

The State of Our Unions report shows that men with only a high school diploma have faced heightened unemployment rates over the past 10 years. Unemployment rates among this sector increased by 9 percentage points between the 1970s and 2000s, while unemployment rates among men with college degrees did not rise during that same period.

“Men who are disconnected from the institution of work are also less likely to enjoy the salutary disciplines and benefits of employment, such as living by a schedule, steering clear of substance abuse, personal satisfaction with work well done, and social status,” the study says. As a result, these men are less likely to get married and stay married than are men with stable careers, according to the study.

Moreover, an increasing economic gap between the poor and middle classes, as well as the middle and upper classes, is similarly increasing the marriage divide, the study says.

“There’s more family instability among parents who don’t have a college degree,” Wilcox said. He noted that college-educated Americans have “increasingly adopted a marriage mindset” while parents without college degrees are “drifting away” from such thinking.

“Marriage is much more than a piece of paper. It’s an institution that tends to give couples and kids a measure of trust, security and stability,” Wilcox said.