The online magazine Slate has had an interesting discussion during the past week about challenging the accepted notion that single parenthood leads to all sorts of undesirable consequences: teenage motherhood, deliquency, dropouts.
It’s been conventional wisdom in all the social sciences — sociology, psychology, economics — that children of single parents, even controlling for other factors, are worse off on average than their counterparts with two (ideally married) parents.
Honestly, when I was researching resilience for my dissertation as a framework for understanding why some children can thrive despite adversity, I didn’t even question the statistical fact that being raised by a single mom was a common risk factor for all the participants in my study — all teenage, high-achieving girls. Resilience can be understood as applying coping strategies and support systems to balance risk factors and stresses. But maybe this single mom is right; maybe growing up with a single mom can force you to develop grit and coping strategies that are particularly useful in modern life. While many of us — particularly those who have had the chance to teach or advise the children of the most privileged — lament the lack of resilience and ability to confront basic obstacles in many kids today, there are plenty of others who have had to face the most difficult of circumstances and have thrived.
Looking back on my study — and it’s too late now since the draft is done! — I realize that I focused too much on the preparation and support that were provided by the nonprofit program from which they all had graduated. While this academic, social, and motivational support contributed significantly to their successes, I think that all of these girls also learned valuable lessons from their mothers, some cautionary and some they desired to emulate.
There can be, as this Slate contributor states, “power in the negative example.” The girls in my study found their mother’s lives of teenage motherhood, poverty, unreliable partners, and unstable job prospects to be motivating influences. Several of them stated that their single mothers taught them to be strong, self-reliant, and resilient and told them explicitly even as young girls to use their own lives as counter-examples.
Do you view being raised by a single mother as an asset or a liability in a child’s development?