Before I read reams of scientific papers comparing children who grew up in different kinds of homes, I probably bought what both political parties were selling - the belief in the supposedly overwhelming superiority of two-parent homes. There is a certain logic to the arguments. Don’t children raised by two parents have twice the love, attention, and resources than children raised by just one parent? And isn’t each of the parents in a married couple all the better at parenting for having the love and support of each other?
So I wasn’t surprised when the results of a national substance abuse survey, based on 22,000 adolescents, found more substance abuse among the children of single mothers than among the children of two biological parents. But, considering the rhetoric about single parenting, I was struck by how few of the children of single mothers had substance problems - 5.7% — and how similar the number was for the children of two biological parents - 4.5%. A difference of about one percentage point is not a very big return on twice the love, attention, and resources.
It’s not that two was a magical number of parents - on the average, the kids did better living with a single mom than they did with a dad who was married to a stepmother. The best living arrangement of all (with regard to substance abuse) included three adults - typically, mom, dad, and a grandparent.
What about grades? Relationships with siblings and friends? There’s research on those questions, too. In a nationally representative sample of many different kinds of households - two-parent biological households, single-mother households, adoptive households, stepmother, and stepfather households - there were no differences at all. What mattered was NOT how many parents there were, or whether the parents were biologically related to the children. Instead, whether children had problems with their grades or with their siblings or friends depended on whether there was a lot of conflict within families, high levels of disagreements between parents, or endless arguments between parents and kids.