Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Sex and Parent and Children's Well-Being in Single-Parent Households

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Sex and Parent and Children's Well-Being in Single-Parent Households

Article excerpt

Do women and men play unique roles in shaping children's well-being? If so, we should note important differences between offspring living with single mothers and those living with single fathers. To date, researchers have been unable to assess this claim satisfactorily because they have lacked generalizable data with detailed information about adolescents in both single-mother and single-father households. We compare well-being among youths living in single-mother and single-father households using the 1990 wave of the National Education Longitudinal Study and among adults raised by single parents using data from the General Social Surveys, 1972-1994. Our results highlight how single mothers and single fathers differ from each other in ways that often predate their family structure but suggest that there is little evidence that offspring are better off or develop particular characteristics in one household versus the other. We suggest that theorists have overemphasized the role of parent's sex in youths' development at the expense of understanding more structural explanations for the association between family structure and well-being.

What role does the sex of a parent play in the parent-child relationship and in children's wellbeing? One argument is that parental sex is critical because women and men are inherently different. They have unique parenting styles and ultimately make distinct contributions to their children's emotional development. This view is expressed in a 1997 Current Population Report:

It is undisputed among researchers and policy pundits alike that fathers' involvement is extremely important for children's proper social and emotional development. Furthermore, fathers interact differently with their children than do mothers, and it is fathers' unique interaction that is said to help promote specifically children's emotional development. (Casper, 1997, p. 1) We challenge this claim. By comparing well-being among children in single-mother and single-father households, we demonstrate that children are not uniquely affected by lack of exposure to either a female or male parent.


The individualist perspective of gender views sex of parent as necessarily important for the parent-child relationship because gender is seen as an immutable trait of adults, the result of either biological sex differences or powerful early socialization (Risman, 1987). Individualists build this argument by pointing out that women experience the parenting role differently than men do. Women more often perform "primary parenting" duties that require daily attention (e.g., feeding, dressing, and transporting children). For men parenting is more likely to be about breadwinning, acting as a playmate, and "helping" with day-to-day responsibilities (Hochschild, 1989; Thompson & Walker, 1989). Both women's and men's parenting styles, it is argued, are important for children in different ways; lacking either is problematic. Those supporting the individualist view of gender attribute, in part, the lower school performance, greater likelihood of early family formation, and weaker labor-force attachment for children from single-mother households versus mother-father households to economic deprivation and the loss of a second parent. Most important, they contend that children also are specifically affected by the lack of a biological father in the household (e.g., Popenoe, 1996).

Structuralist theorists of gender offer an alternative view. They contend that sex roles are not internalized in adults as enduring traits but that men and women behave differently because they often encounter different social conditions (Kanter, 1977; Risman, 1987; West & Zimmerman, 1987). For example, women and men confront different expectations from interaction partners, are expected to meet distinctive obligations from paid and family work (Nock & Kingston, 1988), have access to different information and social networks (Campbell, 1988; Munch, McPherson, & Smith-Lovin, 1997), and are presented with varying opportunities for interaction on a daily basis. …

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