Are two parents better than one?

President Barack Obama was raised almost exclusively by his mother, Stanley Ann. See pictures of famous couples.
President Barack Obama was raised almost exclusively by his mother, Stanley Ann. See pictures of famous couples.
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One of the most compelling narratives of the 2008 U.S. presidential election was then-candidate Barack Obama's single-parented upbringing. His parents stayed together for a little more than two years, and young Barack was raised almost exclusively by his Kansas-born mom, Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro [source: Scott]. As the American electorate learned during stump speeches and endless media profiles, Obama didn't flounder for want of a paternal figure or a second-helping of parental involvement. His stellar grades and attendant academic scholarships paved his way toward Columbia University and, afterward, Harvard Law School, where he was elected the first black president of the prestigious Law Review.

On the one hand, Obama's story stands as a testament to the potential of single parents to provide their children with the resources more commonly afforded to kids raised by two parents under the same roof -- and then some. On the other hand, interpreted through a sociological lens, the 44th American President's biography is but an exception to a widely accepted rule of thumb that, when it comes to offering children the best chances for success and healthy development, two committed parents are better than one [source: Musick and Meier]. And indeed, the federal government under the Obama administration has funded pro-dual-parenting programs, such as the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse.


Handwringing over single parenting has been supported statistically over the years. Family structure and child development research have established correlations between one-parent households and adolescents' lower socioeconomic status, lower educational attainment, higher risks of experimenting with drugs and alcohol, as well as a greater likelihood of their romantic relationships souring like their parents' [source: Musick and Meier]. That dismal data set grew only gloomier, too, when California therapist Judith Wallerstein's best-selling book "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce" came on the scene in 2000 [source: Kirn et al].

Wallerstein's book chronicled her 25-year study of 131 children of divorcees. In it, she claimed that the emotional impact on kids of parents splitting up doesn't manifest in grade school, but rather lies dormant until they're growing up and encountering their own long-term relationships [source: Farnsworth]. At that point, Wallerstein argues, divorce and subsequent single parenting serve as a disastrous blueprint for failure, inciting another generational cycle of romantic disillusionment and dissolution. Considering that the book's sample population was plucked from affluent families, theoretically representing the best-case scenarios for single parenting and resource-rich upbringing, Wallerstein's work seemed to provide an especially compelling argument for staying together for the kids.

But a widely publicized 2010 study on marital conflict and its effect on children suggests there's plenty of room for nuance when it comes to debates over single parenting.


Beneficial Divorce and Single Parenting by Choice

Staying together for the kids isn't a one-size-fits-all solution.
Staying together for the kids isn't a one-size-fits-all solution.
David de Lossy/Getty Images

Divorce is undoubtedly tough on single parents and kids, if only for the financial hit they typically incur as a result. More often than not, single-parent households fall into lower socioeconomic brackets, a statistic exacerbated by the fact that less than 50 percent of custodial parents receive child support payments in full [source: Musick and Meier]. Partly as a result, children being raised by single mothers are roughly five times more likely to live below the poverty line than their peers in married-couple households [source: Foster and Kalil].

At the same time, the potential income bump of two breadwinners instead of one doesn't automatically buy a healthy home environment for kids. If the quality of a couple's relationship is poor, their children's well-being suffers, according to data from the National Survey of Families and Households. In 2010, a pair of policy analysts compared child outcomes -- school grades, drug use, age of first sexual intercourse -- among kids that grew up with single parents, those raised by a biological parent and a stepparent, and those raised by both biological parents. Consistent with "two parents are better than one" logic, those with single or divorced moms and dads fared worse than kids reared in more traditional nuclear family settings. But so did those with unhappily married parents, and they were even more likely than single-parented kids to binge drink alcohol [source: Musick and Meier]. Other studies have found that bickering and hostility between cohabitating parents often breed aggressive, antisocial behavior in children as well [source: Carter]. Indeed, staying together for the kids doesn't necessarily do those sons and daughters any favors.


But what about the host of negative outcomes associated with single parenting? Are the 10.5 million single-parented households in the United States destined to churn out dysfunctional children? In short, no. Single parenting advocates point out that the differences between kids raised by two parents and those raised by one parent are generally negligible [source: De Paulo].

Research has also found that women who choose to be single mothers aren't selfishly robbing their children of resources; they're just finding them in places other than a spouse or romantic partner. A 1997 sociology study out of Wellesley College examined how a group of 50 single moms coped with child rearing on their own. Rather than shouldering the entire burden, the women consistently drew upon relationships with family, friends and community members to help raise their kids [source: Hertz and Ferguson]. Moreover, many single mothers aren't single forever. A 2006 Princeton University study found that 22 percent of women had acquired non-paternal romantic partners by the time their children were 3 years old, and 12 percent had moved in with their significant others [source: Bzotstek, Carlson and McLanahan]. The researchers also concluded that those "social fathers" were positive influences for the children involved in the study.

That increasing commonality of living together with children -- minus marriage -- has added a new wrinkle to the two-is-better-than-one debate. As the proportion of babies born to unmarried women escalates, the components of positive parenting are becoming better illuminated.


Parenting, No Marriage Required

Are they married? Does it matter?
Are they married? Does it matter?
Camille Tokerud/Getty Images

In October 2011, University of Virginia's National Marriage Project reported that American kids are more likely to live with two biological, unmarried parents than one, single divorced parent [source: National Marriage Project]. Since the 1970s, the rate of couples shacking up without first walking down the aisle has swelled 14-fold, and as of February 2012, the majority of new mothers under 30 years old were unmarried [source: DeParle and Tavernise]. That doesn't, however, mean that romantic partners are out of the picture. A little more than 40 percent of kids under 12 years old share their homes with an unwed couple -- sometimes both biological parents, other times not; what worries some dual-parenting and marriage proponents is the risk that the trend toward unmarried cohabitation poses to children [source: Tavernise]. Without the legal rigors of marriage and divorce to contend with, it's logistically and financially easier for a cohabitating couple to call it quits, leaving kids in single-parenting situations.

But to other academics and experts, marriage has become overblown as a predictor of positive parenting. Peel apart the demographics of who is electing to get married these days, and it makes sense why married folks seem to do a better job bringing up baby. Specifically, Americans that go through with weddings tend to be older, more educated and wealthier than their cohabitating counterparts [source: Sassler]. Chances are, those economic and social attributes then trickle down beneficially to their children in ways that poorer, unmarried parents may not be able to replicate.


Regardless, the institution of marriage itself probably isn't an influential factor in child development; in sociological terms, predictors of success boil down to resources. By academic estimates, moms' and dads' incomes account for roughly 50 percent of adolescent outcomes, regardless of single or dual parenting statuses [source: Musick and Meier]. And considering that single parents -- only 40 percent of whom are employed full time -- are twice as likely to earn less per year than any other family structure, problematic trends in their children seem to be less the product of parenting gaps than economic resource gaps [source: Stanczyk].

Although data have demonstrated certain advantages to having more than one primary person involved in a child's upbringing, the numbers should also come with a caveat. As is often demonstrated by empirical data, most kids -- whether they're brought up by mothers, fathers, grandparents or guardians -- turn out just fine [source: Cowan and Cowan]. On top of that, there's a crucial metric that sociological studies can't boil down to empirical percentages for two-versus-one comparisons: the investment of parental love for a child. Good thing for families and kids of all sizes and structures that it's an equal-opportunity resource.


Author's Note

Parenting is enough of a challenge for two people, so tackling that responsibility solo must be immensely difficult at times. Not only is the carpooling, food-buying and tucking in at night done by one person, but there are also single parenting stigmas to combat as well. For that reason, I wanted to approach the question of whether two parents are better than one from more than a statistical perspective. Overall, yes, child outcomes tend to improve with two cohabitating parents raising the kids as opposed to one, which makes sense in sheer terms of workload. But that isn't the end of the story, as the millions of happy, healthy adults raised by a single mom, dad, grandparent or guardian can attest. The quality of parenting is about more than quantity, and even those born into the most blessed of socioeconomic circumstances can suffer in school and socially. When the media publishes percentages of single-parented adolescents that dabble with sex, drugs and alcohol, they often leave out the much larger proportion of those who do the right thing.

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