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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A new nationwide study refutes the theory that children in single-mother households are disadvantaged because they lack the presence of a father.

Researchers at Ohio State University compared a sample of 456 15- and 16-year-olds who lived in single-father households with 2,583 teens who lived in single-mother households. The results showed that the two groups were very similar in terms of deviance and behavior at school, relationships with others, and school performance once factors such as family income and parent education are accounted for.

The results suggest researchers should rethink the assumption that the sex of a parent plays a critical role in the development of children, said Douglas Downey, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State.

“It is well-known that there are a lot of problems associated with children who grow up in single-mother households,” Downey said. “But our results suggest the problems
aren’t mainly due to the lack of a father. We believe the problems rise more from the absence of a second parent in general, and the fact that single mothers are more likely to be disadvantaged in terms of income and other factors.”

The research was published this week in the Journal of Marriage and the Family. Downey conducted the study with James Ainsworth-Darnell and Mikaela Dufur, both graduate students in sociology at Ohio State.

The researchers used data from the 1990 wave of the National Education Longitudinal Study. Downey said they compared teens on a variety of measures that past researchers had suggested might be affected by whether the children lived in single-mother or single-father households. For example, some researchers have argued that fathers are generally the disciplinarians in families, so children in single-mother households may be more likely to have behavior problems.

In order to examine this question, the researchers used data from the NELS that asked teachers to evaluate children on a variety of behavior measures. The results showed that, if anything, children raised by single fathers were less well behaved in the classroom. Teachers judged youths raised by a single father as less successful at getting along with others and as putting forth less effort in class.

“The results contradict the assumption that fathers are more successful disciplinarians than mothers,” Downey said.

Another assumption has been related to the fact that men score higher on tests of quantitative skills while women score higher on tests of verbal skills. Given these facts, some researchers have argued that children who grow up in single-mother households won’t do as well in mathematics, while those growing up in single-father households won’t do as well in English.

However, the results of this study showed no such difference. “We found that single-mother households didn’t promote verbal skills over quantitative skills, and single-father households didn’t promote quantitative skills over verbal skills,” Downey said. “These findings are inconsistent with the claim that women and men facilitate unique capabilities in their children.”

The biggest differences between single mothers and single fathers had to do with various background characteristics such as income, education and occupational prestige. “For nearly every demographic and background characteristic that we measured, single mothers were disadvantaged compared with single fathers,” Downey said.

This suggests that children living with single mothers would be more successful if the mothers were better off financially. “Parents with higher socioeconomic status are usually better positioned to create positive family environments,” Downey said.

Some researchers have claimed that the effects of living in a single-mother or single-father household won’t show up until adulthood, Downey said. To test this claim, the researchers examined data from the General Social Surveys collected by the National Opinion Research Center. They examined 4,400 adults who reported having lived with a single parent at age 16 (750 lived with a single father and 3,650 lived with a single mother). They looked again at a variety of measures, including years of education, family income and overall happiness.

“Again, the overwhelming pattern was one of little difference between those who grew up in single-mother households compared to those who grew up in single-father households,” Downey said.

Downey said family researchers need to distinguish between family characteristics that affect children’s development and those characteristics that do not.

“People have assumed that the sex of the parent has a major effect on children’s development, but we found that isn’t the case,” he said. “Researchers need to focus on other factors, such as family resources, which seem to have a real impact.”


Contact: Douglas Downey, (614) 292-1352; Downey.32@osu.edu
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu