Single-parent families are families with children under age 18 headed by a parent who is widowed or divorced and not remarried, or by a parent who has never married.
One out of every two children in the United States will live in a single-parent family at some time before they reach age 18. According the United States Census Bureau, in 2002 about 20 million children lived in a household with only their mother or their father. This is more than one-fourth of all children in the United States.
Since 1950, the number of one-parent families has increased substantially. In 1970, about 11 percent of children lived in single-parent families. During the 1970s, divorce became much more common, and the number of families headed by one parent increased rapidly. The number peaked in the 1980s and then declined slightly in the 1990s. By 1996, 31 percent of children lived in single-parent families. In 2002, the number was 28 percent. Many other children have lived in single-parent families for a time before their biological parent remarried, when they moved into a two-parent family with one biological parent and one step parent.
The reasons for single-parent families have also changed. In the mid-twentieth century, most single-parent families came about because of the death of a spouse. In the 1970s and 1980s, most single-parent families were the result of divorce. In the early 2000s, more and more single parents have never married. Many of these single parents live with an adult partner, sometimes even the unmarried father of their child. These families are counted by the Census Bureau as single-parent families, although two adults are present. Still other families are counted as single-parent families if the parents are married, but one is away for an extended period, for example, on military deployment.
The most common type of single-parent family is one that consists of a mother and her biological children. In 2002, 16.5 million or 23 percent of all children were living with their single mother. This group included 48 percent of all African-American children, 16 percent of all non-Hispanic white children, 13 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander children, and 25 percent of children of Hispanic origin. However, these numbers do not give a true picture of household organization, because 11 percent of all children were actually living in homes where their mother was sharing a home with an adult to whom she was not married. This group includes 14 percent of white children, 6 percent of African-American children, 11 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander, and 12 percent of Hispanic children.
Households headed by a single father increased substantially after the early 1980s, reflecting society's changing attitudes about the role of fathers in child rearing. In 1970, only 1 percent of children lived with a single father. In 2002, about 5 percent of children under age 18 lived with their single fathers. Single fathers, however, are much more likely to be divorced than never married and much more likely than single mothers to be sharing a home with an adult to whom they are not married. For example, 33 percent of Caucasian children lived with fathers who were unmarried but cohabiting with another adult. The rate was 29 percent for African-American children, 30 percent for Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 46 percent for children of Hispanic origin. It is clear that not all single-parent families are the same and that within different ethnic and racial groups, the number and type of single-parent families varies considerably.
Adoption by single individuals has also soared. In 1970 only 0.5 to 4 percent of adoptive parents were single. In the 1980s this rate increased from 8 to 34 percent. According the United States Department of Health and
Single-parent families face special challenges. One of these is economic. In 2002, twice as many single-parent families earned less than $30,000 per year compared to families with two parents present. At the opposite end of the spectrum, 39 percent of two-parent families earned more than $75,000 compared to 6 percent of single-mother families and 11 percent of single-father families. Single-parent families are challenged in other ways. Children living with single fathers were the least likely of all children to have health insurance coverage.
Social scientists have found that children growing up in single-parent families are disadvantaged in other ways when compared to a two-biological-parent families. Many of these problems are directly related to the poor economic condition of single-parent families, not just to parenting style. These children are at risk for the following:
- lower levels of educational achievement
- twice as likely to drop out of school
- more likely to become teen parents
- more conflict with their parent(s)
- less supervised by adults
- more likely to become truants
- more frequently abuse drugs and alcohol
- more high-risk sexual behavior
- more likely to join a gang
- twice as likely to go to jail
- four times as likely to need help for emotional and behavioral problems
- more likely to participate in violent crime
- more likely to commit suicide
- twice as likely to get divorced in adulthood
Studies have also found that children who live in a two-parent family where one parent is abusive or has a high level of antisocial behavior do not do as well as children whose parents divorce if the child then lives in a single-parent family with the nonabusive parent.
It is important to remember that every single-parent family is different. Children who are living with a widowed mother will have a home life that is different from children with divorced parents or those whose parents were never married. Children of divorced parents will have a wide range of relationships with their parents and parents' partners depending on custody arrangements and the commitment of the non-custodial parent to maintaining a relationship with the child. Despite the fact that children from single-parent families often face a tougher time economically and emotionally than children from two-biological-parent families, children from single-parent families can grow up doing well in school and maintaining healthy behaviors and relationships.
Being a single parent can be hard and lonely. There is often no other adult with whom to share decision-making, discipline , and financial responsibilities. The full burden of finding responsible childcare, earning a living, and parenting falls on one individual. However, the lack of a second parent often has a less negative impact on children than family instability, lack of structure, and inconsistent enforcement of parental standards. Single parents may want to follow these steps in order to create positive experiences for their children:
- Find stable, safe child care.
- Establish a home routine and stick to it.
- Apply rules and discipline clearly and consistently.
- Allow the child to be a child and not ask him or her to solve adult problems.
- Get to know the important people (teachers, coaches, friends) in the child's life.
- Answer questions about the other parent calmly and honestly.
- Avoid behavior that causes the child to feel pressed to choose between divorced parents.
- Explain financial limitations honestly.
When to get help
If parents feel their child is out of control and is not responding to their parenting, they need to get help from the child's school, social service agencies, and mental health professionals. If they feel their own life is spiraling downward and falling apart, they can seek help from many organizations that provide social, emotional, financial, and legal support for single-parent families.
Karst, Patricia. The Single Mother's Survival Guide. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 2000.
Fields, Jason. "Children's Living Arrangements and Characteristics: March 2002." Current Population Reports. United States Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, June, 2003.
Jaffee, Sara R., et al. "Life with (or without) Father: The Benefits of Living with Two Biological Parents Depend on the Father's Antisocial Behavior." Child Development 74 (January-February 2003): 109–27.
Parents without Partners. 1650 South Dixie Highway, Suite 510, Boca Raton, Florida 33431 Web site: http://www.parentswithoutpartners.org.
Single and Custodial Fathers Network Inc. Web site: http://scfn.org .
Single Parent Central. Available online at http://www.singleparentcentral.com (accessed November 14, 2004.).
Tish Davidson, A.M.