What are the effects of growing up in a single parent family?

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The Effects of Single Parenthood

The nuclear or two-parent family has been the most dominant family structure throughout America’s history. Waldfogel, Craigie, and Brooks-Gunn point out that “the vast majority of American children were born into and spent their childhood in intact married-couple families” (87). However, single-parent families have become prevalent causing many children to spend a significant percentage of their childhood with a single parent and in some cases a stepparent. Outcomes of a national longitudinal survey revealed that one-third of all children who participated in the study were born to single mothers with over one-half of the kids projected to spend some time with a single-parent family (Demuth and Brown 58). Recent statistics indicate that one-fifth of all-American kids are born in single-mother families (Waldfogel, Craigie, and Brooks-Gunn 87). Although a significant number of children born into and raised in single-parent families succeed, some encounter serious problems in adolescence and adulthood. This essay discusses how divorce contributes to single parenthood and how this family structure exacerbates the risk of poor academic achievement, adolescence delinquency, and poverty.

The Leading Cause of Single-Parent Families

Divorce is the leading cause of single-parent families. As the cases of divorces increases so does the cases of single-parent families. Historically, the demise of one spouse was the major cause of single-parent families. However, increased divorce has surpassed spousal death as a major contributor to single parenthood (Christie-Seely and Talbot 1633). Single parenting has increasingly been accepted over the past few decades as a choice of building a family. Less conservative scholars attribute the increased acceptance of divorce to “the rise in economic opportunities for women was a necessary condition for the increase in divorce and separation” (Ruggles 456). Today’s women have gained more financial independence and economic power like their male counterparts, both of which empower them to undermine the patriarchal authority and escape “bad” marriages. Single parenthood resulting from marital separation implies that one of the spouses will assume full or partial custody of the child or children. After the separation, the kids might be born to and even spend their early years with either the father or mother, but the parents can still share a major obligation of bringing up the children.

Poor School Achievement

One of the major adverse effects of single parenting is poor school achievement. Research has documented adequate empirical evidence linking single-parenthood to low academic achievement. Research indicates that children born to and raised in a single-parent household score below their peers in the traditional nuclear family structure, on average, on measures of academic performance (Amato, Patterson, and Beattie 192). Even when children in single-parent households have the same academic abilities as their counterparts in two-parent families, the Black Family Initiative established that “children in these households are three times more likely to drop out of high school than children from two-parent families.” Waldfogel, Craigie, and Brooks-Gunn explain that “these families face a disproportionate risk of economic disadvantage in a variety of ways ranging from less money for books, clothes, and extracurricular activities to living in poorer school districts and neighborhoods" (87). The scholars further observe that "Many studies concur that traditional families with two married parents tend to yield the best outcomes for children who form part of a highly productive workforce during their adulthood" (87). Pearlstein opines by observing that “very high rates of family fragmentation in the United States are subtracting from what very large numbers of students are learning in school and holding them back in other ways” (56). Therefore, irrespective of the parent missing in the family, children who are born to and spend their childhood in single-parent families generally face more challenges in school.

Adolescent Delinquency

The second effect of single parenthood that has been consistently established in existing literature is delinquency in adolescence and early adulthood. In their investigation into adolescent delinquency in single-father households, Demuth and Brown identify the mechanisms through which single parenthood exacerbates the risk of delinquency in adolescence. The findings of their study established a significant relationship between single parenting and adolescent delinquency. Teens born to and raised in single-parent households were found to exhibit delinquent behaviors compared their peers living with intact married-couple families (Demuth and Brown 59). The findings of this longitudinal study confirm that the positive effect of single parenting on adolescence delinquency is predominantly a function of parental absence or parental gender. In other words, children residing with either single-father or single-mother are more likely to develop delinquent behaviors in adolescence.

The Impact on Education and Delinquency

The relationship between single parenting and low academic achievement and adolescent delinquency has been consistently documented in existing literature. Brooks-Gunn, Craigie, and Waldfogel identify "parental resources, parental mental health, parental relationship quality, parenting quality, and father involvement" as the primary mechanisms for the link between family stability, child well-being, and workforce outcomes during adulthood (87). Furthermore, several researchers argue that the "rise of single-parent families (as reflected in high rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing) is the primary cause of school failure and related problems of delinquency, drug use, teenage pregnancies, poverty, and welfare dependency in American society" (Amato, Patterson, and Beattie 192). According to researchers, single parents often participate less in their children’s education in addition to less support at home, both of which exacerbate the risk of low educational achievement in children in single-parent households. The children in these family structures stay with either a mother or fathers who are the primary or frequent source of financial support for the household. The need to work means single mothers and fathers have very limited time to not only provide parental support but also participate in their children’s education (Amato, Patterson, and Beattie 193). For example, single-parents may not have time to help their children with homework. Furthermore, the Black Family Initiative points out that single parents, especially single mothers, are not only less likely to use consistent discipline but have less parental control over their children (2). Altogether, these factors increase the risk of lower academic achievement in children in single-parent families. Therefore, irrespective of the parent missing in the family, their children generally face more challenges in school and adolescence.


In conclusion, it is imperative to reiterate that although many children who live with single parents succeed, some encounter serious behavioral and learning problems later in life. It is clearly demonstrated that high rates of divorce and marital separation account for the increased single-parenting families, which in turn, exacerbates the risk of poor academic achievement and adolescence delinquency in these children. Family structure and parental resources inherent in fragile families affect parental support and involvement in education, both of which relate to school achievement and adolescence behavior. Single-parent households are perceived to be fragile since there is only one adult responsible for family upkeep (Waldfogel, Craigie, and Brooks-Gunn 87). This instability often makes single parents negligent and unable to provide the basic needs of their children. All in all, the presence of both parents is crucial to the cognitive and behavioral development of a child.

Works Cited

Amato, Paul R., Sarah Patterson, and Brett Beattie. "Single-parent households and children’s educational achievement: A state-level analysis." Social science research 53 (2015): 191-202.

Black Family Initiative. "Single parenting and children’s academic achievement." (2013).

Christie-Seely, Janet, and Yves Talbot. "Assessing the Single-Parent Family." Canadian Family Physician 31 (1985): 1633.

Demuth, Stephen, and Susan L. Brown. "Family structure, family processes, and adolescent delinquency: The significance of parental absence versus parental gender." Journal of research in crime and delinquency 41.1 (2004): 58-81

Mather, Mark. "US children in single-mother families." Population Reference Bureau, Data Brief (May 2012) (2010).

Pearlstein, Mitchell B. From Family Collapse to America's Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation. Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.

Ruggles, Steven. "The rise of divorce and separation in the United States, 1880–1990." Demography 34.4 (1997): 455-466.

Waldfogel, Jane, Terry-Ann Craigie, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn. "Fragile families and child wellbeing." The Future of children/Center for the Future of Children, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation 20.2 (2010): 87.

August 21, 2023



Child Development

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