Are two parents better than one?

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.
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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.