Single-parent households are a fact of life. One in four children in the U.S. lives with only one parent, usually a single mom, according to census data. Yet a child without two committed parents need not face a disadvantage because of that fact.
Distilling a large body of research down to its essentials reveals a few key factors. The most important elements of child rearing are not the identity or gender of the adults involved but the quality of care coming from those people, as well as its consistency over the years. In cases where one parent is absent, unreliable or uncommitted, research suggests that families keep the following priorities in mind.
Raising a child has always been tough, but rarely does one parent manage it alone. In a study on fragile families by a group of researchers at Columbia University and Princeton University, only 17 percent of single moms reported that they were raising their children completely on their own—most of them had help from the child's father, their own parents, other relatives or friends.
Yet consistency is key. “It's not enough that there just be an adult that's on duty—one year it's the mom, the next year it's the grandma, the next year it's the biological father. You need somebody who is going to be there for the long haul,” says Anne Martin, a developmental psychologist at Columbia University. “The child needs to feel safe and secure in his or her environment to grow intellectually and emotionally.”
For older children, mentors such as teachers, coaches or religious leaders can provide support, as long as those commitments are enduring. The mentoring organization Big Brothers Big Sisters, for example, requires volunteers to commit for at least a year, with the average mentor-mentee relationship lasting two years and three months.
The harsh reality, though, is that the primary parent in a fractured family often struggles to find someone who can shoulder a decade or more of unflagging support. Take that study from Columbia and Princeton: most of the unmarried fathers initially said they wanted to be involved in their child's life. Yet three years after their baby's birth, almost half of the fathers living apart had not been in recent contact with their child.
One way to help engage these dads and other caregivers is to focus on their relationship with the mother. Clinical psychologist Kyle Pruett of the Yale University Child Study Center highlights this variable in his efforts to bring unengaged fathers into their children's life. “Focusing on the men alone turned out to be a waste of money and research efforts,” Pruett says. “We have found that the best way to support the mother is not to deal with the father separately but to deal with him in context with her.”
According to Pruett, many moms must first learn to accept that their helper will have a different parenting style than they do and not try to mold the other caregiver's behaviors to mimic her own. Duplicating efforts can even backfire, as researchers at Ohio State University found in a study published in 2011. One year after resident fathers took over parenting tasks from a mother, the couples in the study had become more combative and more inclined to undermine each other. A better strategy, the authors suggest, is for the two to decide together on their different spheres of influence, perhaps with one parent in charge of bathing and the other in control of preparing meals.
A positive relationship between caregivers can have a major impact on a child's psychological development. In a 2013 study of African-American families, researchers at the University of Vermont and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that the better the relationship between a single mother and her primary helper, the fewer mental health and behavioral problems in the children. A better bond can also reinforce nonresident fathers' commitment to their kids. In a 2008 study led by sociologists Marcia Carlson and Lawrence Berger of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, fathers who lived apart but exhibited good communication and teamwork with a child's mom were more likely to still be involved in their children's life five years after they were born, regardless of whether the parents were romantically involved.
Women today continue to perform the majority of primary caregiving tasks, such as feeding, bathing and comforting children. Fathers, on the other hand, tend to take part in supplementary activities, such as play, which matter less to a child's survival but assist their cognitive development. As a result, the quality of their involvement appears to matter more for children than the quantity.
In a 2013 study of fathers living apart from their biological children, for instance, scientists at the University of Connecticut and Tufts University found that neither monetary contributions nor the frequency of visits had a significant effect on the child's well-being. Rather the critical factor was how often the father engaged in child-centered activities, such as helping with homework, playing together, or attending sports events and school plays.
This kind of involvement promotes cognitive development by “stretching the child's current level of ability, building on what they know right now and expanding it,” Martin says. Known as scaffolding, such engagement helps children develop logical reasoning and problem-solving skills that translate into various situations in life. In households with two married, biological parents, both mothers and fathers tend to scaffold equally. Children living apart from their fathers, however, are less likely to receive the same exposure to cognitively stimulating activities, according to a 2013 study by Carlson and Berger.
Helper parents are therefore especially important for promoting children's intellectual growth. A recent review in the Journal of Community Psychology found that mentors—including relatives, teachers or other involved adults—advance children's academic achievement by introducing them to new ideas and experiences and finding “teachable moments” that challenge them to think critically.
Knowledge building can happen anywhere, not only on outings to museums or in the classroom but also at dinner, while playing, or when driving to and from soccer practice. The key, researchers say, is paying attention to what children are interested in and following their lead.