Time to shift the policy spotlight off single parents

Increasing numbers of children are living in single parent families and many centre – right politicians have suggested that the growing attainment gap in schools is the direct result of the growth in single parenthood (in particular families headed by young single mothers). Calls for a return to traditional family models and values have followed. However, does the evidence support the belief that children from single parent families are both educationally and emotionally damaged? Dr Susan Harkness from the Department of Social Policy at Bath University says not and tomorrow presents the findings from her latest research at the ESRC Research Methods Festival, where she will also suggest a shift in policy focus is now needed.

photo credit: GCSSNJ

The widening gap in opportunities available to children as they grow-up is of considerable policy concern. Among the reasons commonly considered to be contributing towards the growing divide between children is the rise in lone mother families.

Today around 1 in 5 children are living in a lone parent family and a larger share are expected to experience lone parenthood over the course of their childhood.

Yet, while children that are growing up in lone mother families are widely perceived to perform poorly, research, undertaken as part of the ESRC’s Secondary Data Analysis Initiative, shows that lone motherhood is rarely the cause of these children’s poor emotional or cognitive outcomes. Indeed, when compared with children living in otherwise similar families, children living in lone mother almost always do as well as those living with biological parents.

Lone parents

Lone parenthood has grown rapidly since the late-1970s, with around one-in-three children born in 2000 having spent some time living with a single mother by age 11. For most children lone parenthood is experienced at an early age, more than one-in-ten children being born to a lone mother and over 20% having lived with a lone mother by the age of 5.

The rise in lone parenthood has not been uniform across the population; instead family structures are diverging by parental education, and mother’s age of birth. For example, in 2000 one-in-six children was born to a lone mother who had left school at 16 and 40% had experienced living with a lone mother by age 11.

But for those whose mothers stayed on in education until 18 or later, lone motherhood was far rarer, with just 4% being born to a single mother and 16% experiencing lone motherhood by 11.

Maternal age is also a very strong predictor of single parenthood, with 2/3 of children whose mother was under 21 at the child’s birth experiencing lone parenthood by 11 compared to fewer than one-in-ten children with mothers over 30.

Figure 1: Children’s Experience of Having lived with a Lone Mother by Children’s Age and Mothers’ Education

Figure 1: Children’s Experience of Having lived with a Lone Mother by Children’s Age and Mothers’ Education

The evidence suggests that while the experience of lone motherhood is more frequent it is also becoming increasingly correlated with mothers’ (and fathers’) socio-economic characteristics, and so we are also seeing more “negative selection” into lone motherhood; which has tended to reinforce disparities in the (parental and economic) resources available to children growing up in lone parent families.

Gaps in attainment

On average, children who experience lone parenthood during their childhood have poorer cognitive outcomes than those that grow up in families that remain “intact”. These gaps in attainment have remained fairly constant over the last 40-years, with those born to lone mothers experiencing the largest gaps (compared to children those whose parents separate later).

But, once we account for a range of child and family characteristics (in particular maternal age at birth and education) we find the effect of lone motherhood on children’s cognitive outcomes to be much smaller, particularly for those whose mother was single at birth. These characteristics alone can explain a very large share of the gap in children’s attainment, particularly for those whose mothers were single at birth. Once we account for differences in employment and income between lone mother families and those that are intact any gap in cognitive attainment disappears at ages 5 and 7.

Emotional outcomes

Yet, while children’s cognitive outcomes appear to be little affected by family structure, there is some indication that single parenthood may be associated with worse emotional outcomes (where these outcomes include emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity, peer relationship problems and a lack of pro-social behaviour) and the gap between those who experience lone parenthood and “intact” families is getting wider.

For those whose mother was single at birth, a large share in the gap is explained by parents characteristics, such as age of mother at birth and education, while the gap disappears when we account for differences in income and worklessness in single and intact families. But the emotional outcomes of those whose parents separate later can only be partially explained by the family and children’s socio-economic characteristics.

Finally, while children that have experienced lone parenthood on average have similar cognitive outcomes to children in similar intact families, there is some evidence that the effect of lone parenthood on children’s outcomes may be heterogeneous. In particular, there are larger negative effects for the children of those whose mothers are more educated, or whose mothers were older (over 30) at the time of the child’s birth.

Similarly, across the ability distribution, the largest negative effects are seen for the most able, who underperform relative to their high ability peers in intact families, even after other characteristics are controlled for.

No detrimental impact

While the experience of living in a lone mother family is becoming increasingly common, it is at the same time becoming increasingly polarised, with those whose mother left school at 16 or under 21 at the time of birth particularly likely to be born to a lone mother or experience parental separation.

While this may suggest a potentially worrying trend, as those with fewer parental resources are most likely to be bringing up their children alone, we also find little evidence that lone motherhood has a detrimental impact on children’s cognitive development.

The impact of lone parenthood on emotional outcomes differs, with children who are born to lone mothers having similar outcomes to those in equivalent ‘intact’ couples. However, the emotional outcomes of children whose parents separate in early childhood are poorer than children in otherwise similar families.

Policy focus

Overall the findings suggest that lone parenthood has only a small causal impact on children’s development. Instead, policy should pay greater attention to the factors that lead to poor outcomes for families with children, regardless of their family structure.

Policies that focus on improving maternal education, ensuring that there are educational and employment opportunities open to young women which may encourage them to delay childbirth and encouraging policies which boost low-income women’s employment and income opportunities.

2 thoughts on “Time to shift the policy spotlight off single parents”

  1. Remarkable analysis. There seem to be so many negative factors associated with single parenthood – but all disappear when ‘we account for a range of characteristics’. So, the take away from this research is that being brought up by a single mum is worse for a child but that shouldn’t be a problem.

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