THESE DAYS THERE IS ONCE again a great deal of hand-wringing about the sorry moral state of America's children. All the usual suspects have been rounded up: parents who lack values, schools that neglect "character" education, and--conservative pundits' favorite culprit--family breakdown. As William Bennett puts it in The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, "Most of our social pathologies--crime, imprisonment rates, welfare ... alcohol and drug abuse ... sexually transmitted diseases--are manifestations, direct and indirect, of the crack-up of the modern American family."
Concern about single parenthood is legitimate. But single parenthood is not primarily responsible for children's moral troubles. The bigger problem is that our country fails to support good parenting, and it dramatically fails to cultivate critical moral qualities in adults--qualities that are critical to children's moral development--in part because of wrong-headed notions about the fundamental nature of adult's moral lives.
Children in single-parent families, to be sure, face obstacles to developing important moral qualities. Ethical development is rooted in emotional development, and children in single-parent families may suffer more persistently from those feelings--shame, distrust, cynicism--that commonly eat away at children's capacities for caring, responsibility, idealism, and other important moral qualities. In the wake of a divorce, for example, adolescents frequently suffer sharp disillusionment--a loss of idealized images of their parents and of the ideals these parents represent. After a divorce, large numbers of children both suffer the shame of poverty and are abandoned by their fathers (10 years after a divorce, two-thirds of children haven't seen their father in a year and have effectively lost contact with their fathers). This is not the soil out of which idealism and a sense of responsibility for others can easily grow.
But the reality is that most children in single-parent families are not morally defective. They are growing up to be quite good people. Moreover, the notion that single parenthood accounts for Bennett's slew of moral problems is bizarrely ahistorical. Many of these problems were prevalent before 1960, when single parenthood began to rise, and increases in these problems have not followed closely, as Bennett's argument suggests, the steady increase in single parenthood between 1960 and 1990. From the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, for example, both violent crime and teen alcohol abuse declined. That's because single parenthood is only one of many factors that determine the prevalence of these moral problems.
What's more, whether children are somehow less moral in single-parent families depends crucially on other options. How do kids fare when their parents do not divorce but simply remain in miserable marriages, or when their mothers elect to enter shotgun marriages rather than parenting solo? Studies show that children suffer high rates of behavior troubles before their parents' divorce. Locked into decaying marriages, parents who are angry, moody, and withdrawn are less likely to provide models of fairness, respect, compassion, and other virtues for their children. They are also less likely to provide the consistent expectations and encouragement that reduce cynicism and build trust.
All of which points to the big hole in the family breakdown argument of Bennett and company. The focus on the structure of families has ignored what is most important to any child's ethical development: an ongoing, trusting relationship with at least one adult who is ethical and mature, and who listens and encourages without shying away from his or her moral authority. A mountain of research now shows that it is the content of adult-child interactions, not the structure of families, that most strongly determines the shape of children's ethical development. …