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National Observer Home > No. 53 - Winter 2002 > Articles

The Case for the Two-Parent Family (Part II)

Bill Muehlenberg



IV. Educational Performance

How do children from broken, single-parent family homes fare educationally compared to children from intact, two-parent families? A number of studies show that children from mother-only families obtain fewer years of education and are far more likely to drop out of high school than children from intact families. 1 For example, children from intact families where the mother has not completed high school have a 21 per cent chance of dropping out of high school whereas children from broken families where the mother has not completed high school have a 46 per cent chance of dropping out of high school. 2

British studies using the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development, a longitudinal study of 5,000 children born in 1946, found that children who had experienced parental divorce showed lower educational attainment and lower socio-economic status in their mid-twenties than children whose parents had remained married and children who had lost a parent through death. 3 Likewise a Cambridge study which looked at children born in 1958 concluded that the chance of a child going to university is halved by parental divorce. The study noted that these effects are either weaker or nonexistent when a father has died. 4

Moreover, it seems that evidence is mounting to suggest that the presence of fathers strongly impacts on the educational performance and intelligence of children.

One researcher, R.B. Zajonc, reported consistent “deficits in the intellectual test performance of fatherless children,” which persist even “when comparisons are made within a single socioeconomic stratum”. 5 Further, a major study in 1979-1980, commissioned by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (United States), examined the academic records of more than 18,000 students in 14 states. The researchers concluded that “one-parent children on the whole show lower achievement in school than do their two-parent classmates”. 6 Sheila Krein and Andrea Beller’s University of Illinois study noted that “even after taking into account the lower income in single-parent families, the absence of a father has a significant negative effect on the educational attainment of boys.” 7

A study of Australian primary school children from three family types (married heterosexual couples, cohabiting heterosexual couples and homosexual couples) found that in every area of educational endeavour (language, mathematics, social studies, sport, class work, sociability and popularity, and attitudes to learning), children from married heterosexual couples performed better than the other two groups. The study concludes with these words: “[M]arried couples seem to offer the best environment for a child’s social and educational development”. 8

A number of other studies could be mentioned. But it is clear that a child from a two-parent family will tend to do better, and tend to stay longer, in education, than a child from a non-intact family.

V. Criminal Involvement

A number of studies have been undertaken which show a very real connection between delinquent and/or criminal behaviour, and broken families. 9 A study of 522 teenage girls, for example, found that girls in divorced families committed more delinquent acts (for example, drug use, larceny, skipping school) than their counterparts in intact families. 10 Likewise a representative national sample of male and female youth aged 12-17 found that adolescents in mother-only households were more likely to engage in deviant acts. 11 And a study of British communities in the 1989 American Journal of Sociology by Robert Sampson and W. B. Groves found a direct statistical link between single parenthood and virtually every major type of crime, including mugging, violence against strangers, car theft and burglary. 12

Indeed, the very absence of intact families makes gang membership appealing. As Dan Quayle remarked, gang members view the gang as a kind of surrogate family. Many gang members said specifically, “It was like having a family”. “‘Like family’ — unfortunately, that says it all,” said Quayle.

A study reported in Psychology Today found that “90 per cent of repeat adolescent firestarters live in a mother-only constellation”. 13 A 1987 Michigan State University study of 72 adolescent murderers discovered that 75 per cent of them had divorced or never-married parents. 14 And a 1987 study by Raymond Knight and Robert Prentky of 108 violent rapists, all repeat offenders, found that 60 per cent came from single-parent homes. One study tracked every child born on the Hawaiian island of Kavai in 1955 for 30 years. It found that five out of six delinquents with an adult criminal record came from families where a parent — almost always the father — was absent. 15

In Australia, a recent book by Alan Tapper highlights this connection between broken families and crime. In a study of rising crime rates in Western Australia, Tapper suggests that “family breakdown in the form of divorce and separation is the main cause of the crime wave”.

A longitudinal study of 512 Australian children found that there are more offenders coming from families of cohabiting than married couples, and there are proportionally more offenders who become recidivists coming from families of cohabiting than married couples. The study concludes, “The relationship between cohabitation and delinquency is beyond contention: children of cohabiting couples are more likely to be found among offenders than children of married couples.” 16

Even stronger connections between crime and family breakdown have been made by the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, which compared crime rates with out-of-wedlock birth rates from 1903 to 1993. It found that the “percentage of ex-nuptial births correlates significantly with both serious and violent crime at both one and two decades time lapse”. 17

VI. Involvement with Drugs

Drug use is also higher among those who come from broken homes. Mott and Haurin 1987, and Matsueda and Heimer 1987, for example, found that offspring from non-intact families are more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use than offspring from two-parent families. 18

Fathers, it seems, play a particularly important role in prevention of drug use. A 1987 U.C.L.A. study pointed out that “inadequate family structure” makes children more susceptible to drug use “as a coping mechanism to relieve depression and anxiety.” Another U.C.L.A. study (1988) concluded that, although “mothers are more active than fathers in helping youngsters with personal problems . . . with regard to youthful drug users, [the] father’s involvement is more important”. Among the homes with strict fathers, only 18 per cent used alcohol or drugs at all. In contrast, among mother-dominated homes, 35 per cent had children who used drugs frequently. 19

A recent American study of over 1700 youths found that adolescents growing up in a single-parent or step-parent family often feel estranged and consequently drift into drug use and abuse. 20 A New Zealand study of nearly 1000 children observed over a period of 15 years found that children who have watched their parents separate are more likely to use illegal drugs than those whose parents stay together. 21

Other studies, including those by Napier, Carter and Pratt in 1981, by Needle et al. in 1990, by Doherty and Needle in 1991, and by Velez and Ungemack in 1989, found a high correlation between juvenile drug use and non-intact households. While children from two-parent families are not immune to the lure of drugs, their chances of taking them are minimised.

VII. Mental and Emotional Wellbeing

Judith Wallerstein has done some of the most important work in the area of the relationship between children of divorce and emotional and psychological ill-health. Her 1980 study with Joan Kelly, recorded in Surviving the Breakup, looked at 60 divorced families over a five-year period. Some of the findings include:

• Over 90 per cent of the children initially felt “an acute sense of shock, intense fears, and grieving which the children found overwhelming”.

• Half the children feared being abandoned forever by the parent who had left, and they were preoccupied with the fear of waking to find both parents gone.

• Despondency, rejection, anger and guilt were common feelings which a significant number of children felt.

• Five years after the divorce 37 per cent of the children were intensely unhappy and very depressed.

A follow-up study by Wallerstein and Blakeslee, called Second Chances (1989) traces the original families ten and fifteen years on. This study found that many of the children, now teens and adults, were still feeling the effects of their parents’ divorces. Ten years on, 41 per cent of them were worried, underachieving, self-deprecating and angry young men and women. Many could not enter into stable, intimate relationships of their own, and if marriage was entered into, they seemed much more vulnerable to divorce. Young women especially found it difficult to form lasting relationships with men.

Of even greater significance, Wallerstein has just released a third follow up study, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, (2000). In this book, she covers a full twenty-five years of the childrens’ lives after their parents’ divorces. Now, as adults, the harmful effects of divorce are still clearly discernible. Indeed, “the whole trajectory of an individual’s life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience”. The children, now in their late twenties to early forties are still struggling to overcome anger, a sense of betrayal, fear of loneliness and failure, and difficulty in forming intimate and lasting relationships. Wallerstein states:

“From the viewpoint of the children, and counter to what happens to their parents, divorce is a cumulative experience. Its impact over time rises to a crescendo in adulthood. At each developmental stage divorce is experienced anew in different ways. In adulthood it affects personality, the ability to trust, expectations about relationships, and ability to cope with change . . . it is in adulthood that children of divorce suffer the most. The impact of divorce hits them most cruelly as they go in search of love, sexual intimacy, and commitment. Their lack of inner images of a man and a woman in a stable relationship and their memories of the parents’ failure to sustain the marriage badly hobbles their search, leading them to heartbreak and even despair.”

The findings of long-lasting feelings of rejection, rage, disappointment, guilt and confusion among children of divorce are echoed in other studies. 22 These studies show that “the absence of a parent through death, divorce or a time-demanding job contributes to the many forms of emotional disorder, especially the anger, rebelliousness, low self-esteem, depression, and antisocial behaviour that characterises those adolescents who take drugs, become pregnant out of wedlock, or commit suicide.” 23

Nicholi, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, goes on to point out that “other studies have found that children of divorce make up an estimated 60 per cent of child patients in clinical treatment and 80 to 100 per cent of adolescents in in-patient mental hospital settings”. He concludes: 24

“Research indicates clearly that a broken home with the resultant loss or absence of a parent predisposes a child to a variety of emotional disorders that manifest themselves immediately or later in the child’s life.”

A 1987 study of the preschool children admitted to two New Orleans hospitals as psychiatric patients over a 34-month period found that nearly 80 per cent came from fatherless homes. A 1989 Canadian study of teenagers discharged from psychiatric hospitals found that only 16 per cent were living with both parents when they were admitted. From nations as diverse as Finland and South Africa, a number of studies have reported that anywhere from 50 to 80 per cent of psychiatric patients come from broken homes. 25

So also a 1992 study found that children in stepfamilies typically experience far less favourable emotional lives compared to children in intact families. 26 Their study concluded: “Children in stepfamilies had more behaviour problems, less prosocial behaviour, and more life stress than children in nuclear families.”

Psychologists from the University of Leiden conducted a study of nearly 14,000 Dutch adolescents between the ages of 12-19. They report, “In general, children from one parent and step-parent families reported lower self-esteem, more symptoms of anxiety and loneliness, more depressed moods and more suicidal thoughts than children from intact families.” 27 Likewise a study published in the international journal Molecular Psychology found that the chance of developing clinical depression or schizophrenia is four times higher for children whose parents divorced before they were nine than it is among those whose parents stayed together. 28

XIII. Suicide

Suicide rates also tend to be higher amongst those from broken homes. A number of independent studies show a statistically significant incidence of separation and divorce in the families of adolescents who attempt suicide as compared with control groups. 29 A 1987 study by Wodarksi and Harris linked the increase in suicides in America to the proliferation of single-parent households. 30 And a 1988 study of 752 families found that youths who attempted suicide differed little in terms of age, income, race and religion, but were “more likely to live in nonintact family settings”. 31

Similarly, a Flinders University professor of social sciences recently reported that research shows a very close link between suicidal behaviour and parent-child relationships. 32

X. Children Having Children

Children from mother-only families are more likely to marry early and have children early, both in and out of wedlock, and are more likely to divorce. Also, age at the first marriage will be lower for the children of divorced parents who marry, when sex, age and maternal education are controlled. 33

As just one example, a recent British study by Kathleen Kiernan found that girls brought up by lone parents were twice as likely to leave home by the age of 18 as the daughters of intact homes; were three times as likely to be cohabitating by the age of 20; and almost three times as likely to have a birth out of wedlock. 34

XII. Child Abuse

Evidence seems to indicate that children at greater risk of child abuse are not those in normal, two-parent families, but those in broken homes. As one study found, “the risk of abuse and neglect is likely to be exacerbated where substitute individuals fill the roles of biological parents”. 35 A 1985 study found that when all the variables of class and maternal age are accounted for, “preschoolers in step-parent – natural parent homes . . . are estimated to be 40 times as likely to become abuse statistics as like-aged children living with two natural parents”. 36

In a 1982 study of child abuses cases in which there were children of a previous marriage, it was observed that only step-children were abused and not the natural children. 37A 1994 study of 52,000 children found that those who are most at risk of being abused are those who are not living with both parents. 38 A Finnish study of nearly 4,000 ninth-grade girls found that “stepfather-daughter incest was about 15 times as common as father-daughter incest”. 39

Again, it has been found that children in single-parent households are especially vulnerable to abuse, often at the hands of their mother’s boyfriends. 40 Also, former Human Rights Commissioner Mr. Brian Burdekin has reported a 500 to 600 per cent increase in sexual abuse of girls in families where the adult male was not the natural father. 41 Heather Strang of the Australian Institute of Criminology notes that infants under the age of 12 months are the population group at highest risk of being murdered, and the most likely killer of a child is his or her non-biological father — “in other words, the mother’s new partner.” 42 Furthermore, a study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that children of single mothers are three times more likely to suffer physical or emotional abuse. 43

Broadly speaking, several trends can be observed from the evidence: (1) a child’s development, by every indicator, is best served in the context of a natural, two-parent home; (2) the absence of a parent is more devastating for a child than poverty or bad neighbourhoods; and (3) single-parent families are more likely to produce a new generation which has the same or even worse problems than the last.

Let me conclude with two summaries of the evidence just examined. The first comes from Sara McLanahan (herself a single mother) and Gary Sandefur: “We reject the claim that children raised by only one parent do just as well as children raised by both parents. We have been studying this question for ten years, and in our opinion the evidence is quite clear: Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents’ race or educational background, regardless of whether the parents are married when the child is born, and regardless of whether the resident parent remarries.” 44

The second, from William Galston of the University of Maryland: “A substantial body of research suggests that family structure is an independent factor influencing the well-being of children. Even after correcting for variables such as family income, parental education, and prior family history, children from single-parent families tend on average to fare less well economically, educationally and emotionally, and encounter more difficulties on the road to becoming self-sustaining adults.” 45

Modern societies are tearing apart at the seams. A large part of the reason for this is the breakdown of families on a broad scale. As families break down, modern democracies become increasingly at risk. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has said, “The family serves as the seedbed for the virtues required by a liberal state. The family is responsible for teaching lessons of independence, self-restraint, responsibility and right conduct, which are essential to a free democratic society. If the family fails in these tasks, then the entire experiment in democratic self-rule is jeopardised.”

A necessary task of the day is to restore the institutions of marriage and family. Unless we do that, efforts to prevent the deterioration of society will be unsuccessful. For the sake of our children, we need to work towards the rebuilding of the beleaguered family.

1. For example: Krein, Sheila and Beller, Andrea, “Educational Attainment of Children from Single-Parent Families: Different by Exposure, Gender and Race” Demography 25, 1988; Bruneck, Dan and Wilson, Margo, “Child Abuse and Other Risks of Not Living with Both Parents”Ethology and Sociobiology 6, 1985.

2. McLanahan, Sara and Sandefur, Gary, Family Policy Studies Centre, cited in “The Bargain Breaks” The Economist, 26 December 1992-8 January 1993.

3. Christensen, Bryce, “Family Dissolution and the Health Care Crisis” in Bryce Christensen, When Families Fail . . . The Social Costs University Press of America, 1991.

4. Richards, Martin, Cambridge psychologist cited in “The Bargain Breaks” The Economist, 26 December, 1992-8 January 1993.

5. Zajonc, R.B., “Family Configuration and Violence” Science 191, 16 April 1976.

6. Davidson, Nicholas, “Life without Father: America’s Greatest Social Catastrophe” Policy Review, Winter 1990.

7. Krein, Sheila and Beller, Andrea, op. cit.

8. Sarantakos, Sotirios, “Children in Three Contexts” Children Australia, volume 21, 1996, pages 23-31.

9. For example: Matsueda, Ross and Heimer, Karen, “Race, Family Structure and Delinquency: A Test of Differential Association and Social Control Theories” American Sociological Review 52, December 1987; Rickel, Annette and Langner, Thomas, “Short-term and Long-term Effects of Marital Disruption on Children” American Journal of Community Psychology 13, 1985; and Peterson, James and Zill, Nicholas, “Marital Disruption, Parent-child Relationships, and Behaviour Problems in Children” Journal of Marriage and the Family 48, 1986.

10. Kalter, N., Riemer, B., Brickman, A., and Chen, J.W., “Implications of Parental Divorce for Female Development” Journal of The American Academy of Child Psychiatry 24, 1985.

11. Dornbusch, Sanford, et al, “Single Parents, Extended Households, and the Control of Adolescents” Child Development 56, April 1985.

12. Sampson, Robert and Byron Groves, “Community Structure and Crime: Testing Social-Disorganization Theory” American Journal of Sociology 94, January 1989.

13. Herbert, Wray, “Dousing the Kindlers’ Psychology Today, January 1985.

14. Davidson, Nicholas. “Life Without Father: America’s Greatest Social Catastrophe” Policy Review, Winter 1990.

15. Zinsmeister, Karl, “Do Children Need Fathers?: The Murphy Brown Question” Crisis, October 1992.

16. Sarantakos, Sotirios, “Cohabitation, Marriage and Delinquency: The Significance of Family Environment” The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, volume 30, 1997, pages 187-199.

17. Sullivan, L., Maley, B. and Warby, M., State of the Nation: Statistical Indictors of Australia’s Well-being, Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies, 1997.

18. Mott, Frank and Haurin, R.J., “The Interrelatedness of Age at First Intercourse, Early Child-Bearing, Alcohol and Drug Use Among Young American Women,” a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America, Chicago 1987; Matsueda, Ross and Heimer, Karen, op. cit.

19. Davidson, Nicholas, op. cit.

20. Hoffman, John, “The Effects of Family Structure and Family Relations on Adolescent Marijuana Use” The International Journal of the Addictions 30, 1995; “Separation, Adolescent Psychopathology, and Problem Behaviours,” Journal of the American Academy, pages 1207-1241.

21. Fergusson, David, et al., “Parental Separation, Adolescent Psychopathology, and Problem Behaviours” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 33, 1994, pages 1122-1131.

22. Glenn, Norval and Kramer, Kathryn, “The Psychological Well-being of Adult Children of Divorce” Journal of Marriage and the Family 47, November 1985; Amato, Paul and Keith, Bruce, “Parental Divorce and Adult Well-being: a Meta-analysis” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53, February 1991; Davis, P.A. Suicidal Adolescents, Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1983; Nicholi,

23. Nicholi, Armand, “The Impact of Parental Absence on Childhood Development: An Overview of the Literature”, op. cit.

24. Nicholi, Armand, “The Impact of Family Dissolution on the Emotional Health of Children and Adolescents,” in Christensen, Bryce, When Families Fail . . . the Social Costs, University Press of America, 1991.

25. Ibid.

26. cited in Davidson, Nicholas, op. cit.

27. Garnefski, Nadia and Diekstra, Rene, “Adolescents from one parent, stepparent and intact families; emotional problems and suicide attempts”Journal of Adolescence 20, 1997, pages 201-208.

28. Eisenberg, Dennis, “Divorce a health hazard for kids” Sunday Herald Sun, 7 March 1999, page 24.

29. Goldney, R.D., “Locus of Control in Young Women Who Have Attempted Suicide” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders 170, 1982; Deykin, E., “Adolescent Suicide and Self-Destructive Behaviour: An Intervention Study” in G.L. Klerman, ed., Suicide and Depression Among Adolescents and Young Adults, Washington: American Psychiatric Press, 1986; Adams, K.S. et al., “Parental Loss and Family Stability in Attempted Suicide” Archives of General Psychiatry 39, September 1982.

30. Wodarski, John and Harris, Pamela, “Adolescent Suicide: A Review of Influences and the Means of Prevention” Social Work 36, November-December 1987.

31. Ibid.

32 Hughes, Peter, “Changes in the family linked to rise in teenage suicides” The Age, 25 July 1990.

33. Hogan, Dennis and Kitagawa, Evelyn, “The Impact of Social Status, Family Structure and Neighbourhood on the Fertility of Black Adolescents” American Journal of Sociology 90, January 1985; McLanahan, Sara and Bumpass, Larry, “Intergenerational Consequences of Family Disruption” Journal of Marriage and the Family 51, August 1989; Levy, S.B. and Grinker, W.N., Choices and Life Circumstances – An Ethnographic Study of Project Redirection Teens, New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., 1983; Baldwin, W., “Trends in Adolescent Contraception, Pregnancy and Child Rearing” in McAnarney, E.R., Premature Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenthood, New York: Grune J. Stratton, 1982.

34. Kiernan, Kathleen, cited in “The Impact of Parental Divorce on Children’s Educational Attainment, Marital Timing, and Likelihood of Divorce” Journal of Marriage and the Family 50, August 1988.

35. Daly, Martin and Wilson, Margo, “Discriminative Parental Solicitude: A Biological Perspective” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 46, May 1980.

36. Ibid.

37. Lightcap, J., Kurland, J. and Burgess, R., “Child Abuse: A Test of Some Predictions from Evolutionary Pressure” Child Development 58, 1987.

38. Malkin, Catherine and Lamb, Michael, “Child Maltreatment: a Test of Sociobiological Theory” Journal of Comparative Familly Studies 25, 1994, pages 121-130.

39. Sariola, Keikki and Uetela, Antti, “The Prevalence and Context of Incest Abuse in Finland” Child Abuse and Neglect, volume 20, note 9, 1996, pages 843 –850.

40. Margolin, Leslie, “Child Abuse by Mothers’ Boyfriends: Why the Overrepresentation?” Child Abuse and Neglect 16, 1992.

41. Pirrie, Michael, “Child abuse law alert” The Herald-Sun, 28 August 1993.

42. Cadzow, Jane, “Crime by numbers” The Age Good Weekend, 25 September 1993.

43. Sweetman, Kim, “Abused and sick” The Daily Telegraph, 24 September 1997, page 4.

44. McLanahan, Sara and Sandefur, Gary, op. cit.

45. Galston, William, “Causes of Declining Well-Being Among U.S. Children” in Estlund, David and Nussbaum, Martha (eds.), Sex, Preference and Family, Oxford University Press, 1997.








National Observer No. 53 - Winter 2002