Children in Single-Mom Households "at Risk"
What do we do about it?
by Trev Martin
Canadian Press recently published the results of a massive Statistics Canada study of 23,000 children across the country during an eight month period in 1994 and 1995. The central conclusion of the study is that children raised by single mothers face increased risks of emotional, behavioural, academic and social problems. (Statistics Canada)
One in six children in Canada live in single-parent families, 93% of these headed by single mothers. (Statistics Canada)
Social researchers have long known that growing up in poverty puts children at higher risk for problems such as hyperactivity, emotional distress or failing a grade at school. But, the agency found the incidence of such problems among children of well-off single mothers was generally higher than for children from poor two-parent familes. (Portia Priegert, Canadian Press)
Such statistics do not mean single mothers are worse parents, rather they suggest that single mothers have a tough job juggling their responsibilities at work and home and have fewer resources than traditional families. (Carolyne Gorlick, social policy professor at the University of Western Ontario)
And children may be more prone to problems because their parents have gone through painful divorces. (Robert Glossop, Vanier Institute of the Family, Ottawa)
The fact that children raised by single mothers are at increased risk is found over and over again. Acknowledging that fact is the first step to changing our legal framework and cultural attitudes toward parenting and raising children.
Once children are brought into the relationship between a man and a woman, there needs to be an increased importance and responsibility attached to maintaining the family structure for the benefit of the children. This may mean tax benefits, available counselling or a climate of compromise. Children who do not experience divorce reduce many risks facing them today.
This is not to suggest that a spouse remain in a relationship which is destructive to them or their children. There have always been and will always be necessary reasons for divorce, such as in situations where one partner is abusive to the other or to the children.
Somehow, we have to make the separation/divorce process less traumatic and confrontational, in the interests of the children. A court system which forces a winner take all outcome rather than encourages mediation and compromise does not produce justice. We all know that when parents emerge from separation/divorce able to work together in the best interests of the children, their risks are much lower than if the parents remain in unresolved conflict. They thus avoid experiencing unnecessarily painful divorce and are more likely to be able to maintain healthy relationships with both parents.
Child poverty as a result of divorce cannot be solved by social welfare programs or by increased transfers from non-custodial parents. This is not an argument against child maintenance payments, just a recognition of reality. Social welfare programs have not solved anything and are seen by many to encourage the problem. When you take a household with one income and split it into two households with the same income, the only possible result (except for the few cases of extremely high income) is two households in poverty. The answer must be to reduce the divorce rate and keep families together.
Another consideration is that the present regime is undermining the economic viability of second families and discouraging them from forming at all. Single parents and children who would benefit from the relational, parental and financial support of a "new" parent and spouse are being denied that possibility. This is not to suggest that the responsibilities of a parent towards his/her children of a previous relationship are not primary, but to suggest that we should not be so quick to assign long-term family maintenance obligations to the "new" parent when a new family is formed, where those children are the product of a previous relationship. Another answer, then, is to encourage "new" family formation.