Family life is much different today than what it used to be. Several years ago mothers would stay at home with their children while the father went to work to support his family, but it is nothing like that today in American households.
Today it is common for children to be raised by just one of their parents, and those children are often disadvantaged in several ways. The most consistent finding from studies of family structure shows that single parents exert weaker controls and make fewer demands on their children than married families do (Curtin et al. 368). There is a real easy explanation for this problem, it is the simple fact that two parents together make more rules and are more likely to stick by those rules than single parents are (Curtin et al. 368).
Single parents are not able to show the same emotions as married couples can, because the love between a mother and a father plays an important part in a family. Children learn how to love from their parents, but if both parents are not there to teach them how to love, their love might be somewhat one-sided (Curtin et al. 371). Yes, single parents can show their love toward their children, but they have no spouse to express love to. Children from single parent families are therefore denied that learning experience of how a husband and a wife should love one another (Curtin et al. 369).
Relationships are another thing that everyone needs, especially children. Children need a real strong relationship between themselves and their parents, but children from single parent families are usually denied this privilege because they are separated from one of their parents and often do not get to spend adequate time with the other. Children who have a strong relationship with their parents are more likely to respect the authority of their parents (Curtin et al. 370). The problem with single parent is the fact that usually the single parent does not have the time to help the child develop a close relationship with them. Another problem is how a child can build a strong relationship with a parent they do not live with and often do not see on a regular basis. The simple fact is that children need both of their parents in the household to build a close relationship with and to teach them to respect the parent’s authority. True, not all children from two parent households have close relationships with their parents, but it is much more likely.
Gender also plays an important role in families. Men and women have very different characteristics, both emotionally and physically. These different characteristics contribute to their roles as mothers and fathers (Curtin et al. 369). For instance, men are normally much stronger physically than women, and are therefore able to do many things around the house that a woman cannot. Women are much more likely to do the everyday household chores while the man does the heavy duty work. Women usually tend more to the children when they need things than do the men, and also help them more with emotional type problems (Curtin et al. 369). So it is easy to see why having both parents in the household makes a much more well-rounded family atmosphere.
When both parents are not in the household children after experience a great deal of stress from different aspects of their lives. This stress often comes from children who are forced into independence and self-reliance before they are mature enough to cope (“Children” 58). Many single parents leave their children at home or send them to low quality day cares centers while they are at work, causing stress on the children (“Children” 60). Yes, two parent families often leave their children at home or send them to low quality day cares, but studies show that it is ten times more likely to happen in single parent families (“Children” 59).
Another time which brings a great deal of stress to single parent homes is the holidays. The holidays are a time when families should be together. Single parents may not be able to provide this for their children (“Holidays” 3). Another problem that arises during the holidays is that of gift competition between the parents (“Holidays” 3). The problem with the parents competing over who gets the best gift is the fact that the children often feel as if the parents want to but their love instead of earning it by showing them love.
Children of single parent homes also face stress by always worrying about everything that is going on in their lives. According to Richard Kinsey single parent children worried more about school, family, future, finding work, crime, and their environment by a large margin (16). However, the biggest worry of these children was about their own personal loves and what was going to happen to them as they grew up (Kinsey 16).
Richard Kinsey also did a survey on crimes committed by children in both two parent homes and single parent homes. He found that children in two parent homes self-reported committing crimes at a rate of 59%, but children from single parent homes self-reported committing crimes at a rate of 74% (16). This survey gives a strong emphasis of how important the respect of authority if for children. It also showed how children form single parent homes are more likely to commit crimes than the children from two parent homes.
Single parent homes not only reflect or cause stress upon children, but also upon the parent. Single mothers especially feel stress when a father figure is not present (Allen et al. 390). According to the survey done by Katherine Allen and Peggy Quinn, seventy percent of the single mothers reported that they always worried about money (390). Not only was money a big issue, but also time and energy (392). These single mothers are put under pressure from about every aspect of their lives, and without a husband there to help raise a family, pay the bills, and to show them love, the single mother must nearly feel hopeless.
Another big stress for single mothers is the fact that now they have the responsibility of two parents (Allen et al. 392). One woman describes how she felt: “And on the weekends then, mow the yard, and clean the house, and wash the clothes. When you get done doing that, its Monday all over again” (Allen et al. 392). Most parents form two parent homes realize the responsibility they have and the stress that they face with a spouse there to support them, but just imagine that spouse not being there to help support and help with the responsibilities of the family and that is exactly what it is like to be a single parent.
Now we have seen the pressures that single mothers face, but what about single fathers because there are many of them in the world today. One example can be found in the article ” A Singular Experience,” by Brad Andrews. Andrews himself is a single father and he discusses the overwhelming responsibilities of being a single father (8). He now has to do all of the household chores and take care of the children all by himself. He can no longer play catch with his son after dinner because now he has to do the dishes (8). These single parent situations create instability and do not provide a positive environment for children to grow up in. Both a father and a mother are needed to create a stable environment and a positive place from children to live.
Another example is the article “Single Fathers With Custody” by Alfred DeMaris and Geoffrey Grief. DeMaris and Grief explain the fact that single fathers experience the same worries and overwhelming responsibilities that single mothers do. Fathers face financial worries, pressures from work, and pressure of time for himself and his children (DeMaris et al. 260).
The simple fact is that being a single parent is a very difficult task, whether it is a single father or a single mother. A family consists of a father and a mother with their children, not just one parent. Single parent homes create a lot of stress and worries on the parent as well as the children, and the stress and worries are not needed by either. After all, it takes two to make a child; it should take two to raise a child.
by Mindy E. Scott, Laurie F. DeRose, Laura H. Lippman, and Elizabeth Cook
This section of the report examines the role of one important aspect of family structure, children’s living arrangements, for their educational achievement and attainment in countries across the world. Prior research—mostly on the US and Europe—suggests that children who grow up without one or both parents in the household are at risk for a host of negative educational outcomes.1 This essay builds on this research to explore whether this finding holds true in all regions of the world by asking the following questions:
- How does living with one parent or neither parent compare with living with two parents on a range of educational outcomes in both lower income countries (mostly in the southern hemisphere) and middle- and high-income countries (mostly in the northern hemisphere)?
- Do individual and family background differences, and children’s attitudes about school and relationships with teachers, help to explain why children who do not live with two parents experience worse educational outcomes than those who do?
- Are there important differences in the relationship between living arrangements and children’s education between major world regions?
Based on analyses presented here, the answers to these questions tend to reflect different and diverse patterns, often based upon the level of income in the countries. For example, children living with two parents tend to experience better educational outcomes compared with those living with one or no parents in high- and middle-income countries, although there are a number of exceptions to this finding. The experiences of children in low-income countries appear to be much more diverse. In particular, in these countries, living with one parent isn’t necessarily a negative experience, and appears to be associated with benefits for some children when it comes to education. However, children who don’t live with either parent tend to have the worst educational outcomes (based on the measures examined here) in all regions of the world. The results presented in this essay provide a more comprehensive and global look at the link between family structure and children’s education than has been done in the past, although additional work is needed to continue to understand how and why families matter for children’s education and other aspects of child well-being.
Educational outcomes are key indicators of children’s well-being and their prospects for future success. Enrollment and level of achievement in school influence how children are doing at the present time, including their cognitive, psychological, and social development. Children’s cognitive abilities and academic achievement also set the stage for children’s future successes, such as their employment and earnings opportunities, and achievement in school can also affect children’s health outcomes.2 These varied outcomes are important not only for an individual’s well-being, but also for the productivity and well-being of families, communities, and nations. One of the eight Millennium Development Goals for 2015 is to ensure that children everywhere—boys and girls alike—will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.3 Most countries have succeeded in increasing overall enrollment in school at the primary level, although there remain challenges to providing secondary education opportunities for all children, especially in low-income countries where access to education and educational resources are more limited.
In these low-income countries, access to education is determined by many of the same factors as in middle- and high-income countries, but there are additional issues that greatly affect both children’s enrollment and children’s successful progression through school. One of these issues is that although the quality of available schooling matters everywhere, differences in quality seem to be much greater in low-income countries.4 For example, something as basic as whether a teacher comes to class regularly was found to be an important factor in children’s achievement in rural India.5 This kind of problem does not often enter into the discussion of school quality in high-income countries. Children’s work status is also a factor in low-income countries, where families rely on children’s labor and earnings. For example, children who have to work are more likely to repeat a grade.6 Caregiving by children is another reality in low-income countries, and includes children taking care of younger siblings so mothers can work, but also children caring for sick parents or relatives. This occurs in many countries heavily afflicted by HIV/AIDS. Parents’ health status also affects children’s schooling by limiting the amount of money available for school.7
There are a number of important theoretical perspectives that may help to explain why children’s living arrangements (or family structure) may or may not be linked to educational outcomes. From an evolutionary perspective, biological parents are more likely to invest more in their children’s education than are other adults who are not biologically related to the child or children.8 In contrast to two biological parents who invest in their relationship with each other by investing in their children, single parents may have to choose between investing in new relationships and in their children.9 Likewise, investment in children may not be as strong in stepfamilies, compared with two biological-parent families, even though it appears that children living with two partnered adults should have educational advantages over children living with single parents, with these advantages going beyond the additional time and resources that two parents bring to households.
From a resource perspective, parents provide their children valuable social and financial capital, and these types of resources tend to be more limited in families with one parent and even more so in families with no parents. Social capital refers to social benefits that are gained through networks of relationships that facilitate interaction among individuals within these networks and the exchange of knowledge, support, and other valuable resources.10 Within the context of the family, social capital is typically measured by the strength of ties between family members. Following this framework, then, parental absence may reduce family social capital by weakening relationships between children and nonresident parents, typically fathers, and sometimes even between the remaining resident parent and his or her children. For example, single mothers are often less able to provide emotional support and monitor their children effectively if they are overburdened by financial and emotional strains or are less able to balance work and family responsibilities successfully.11
Although these perspectives emphasize the benefits provided by two parents, there are also reasons to expect that children living with just one parent, and mothers in particular, may sometimes have an advantage over children living with two parents, resulting in better outcomes for children in single-parent families. Prior research suggests that female-headed households, and households where mothers have more decision making power, tend to make decisions in favor of child schooling in some regions of the world.12 In other words, when mothers have more decision-making power, which is likely when they are single mothers, children may be more likely to be enrolled in school, particularly if mothers place a higher value on their children’s schooling than fathers. Since the majority of single-parent families are single-mother families, this may reflect the experiences of many children living with one parent in low-income countries. For instance, a number of studies in Sub-Saharan Africa have found that children are more likely to succeed in the educational arena if they are raised in female-headed households, compared with children raised in homes with their two biological parents13; which is partly explained by the tendency for mothers to invest greater resources, including time, money, and emotional support to facilitate the education of their children than fathers.14
Another possibility is that family structure does not matter for children’s educational attainment and achievement, so that children living with one or neither parent do just as well as those living with two parents. This may occur in countries where children’s educational opportunities are influenced by a number of other factors beyond the family, including the type of school (public or private)15, school quality, the cost of schooling, gender norms, parental health, or child nutrition.16 Further, there may be fewer differences based on family structure for certain educational outcomes like school enrollment, especially in countries where access to schooling is fairly universal, although the quality of the schools that children attend may still differ depending on family structure and the available resources in a family.17
This essay focuses specifically on the link between family structure (indicated by the number of parents children live with) and children’s educational outcomes. In looking at the evidence, it is important to recognize that families can influence children’s well-being in diverse ways, and that other family-level factors beyond family structure may matter for child well-being. Among these factors is the quality of family relationships. For example, some prior research indicates that children who live in households with married parents who fight a lot may be less happy and have more difficulties in life when they are older than do children whose parents experienced conflict in their marriage, but subsequently divorced.18 Other research indicates that children who live with their fathers, but are not close to them, experience lower self-esteem, more delinquency, and more depressive symptoms than do children who do not live with their fathers, but maintain a close relationship with them. Thus, it is possible that children living with two parents may not always do better than those living with one or no parents, depending on the quality of the relationships, and other factors within the family.19
Previous research tends to find different effects of family structure on children’s educational outcomes in high- versus low-income countries. In high-income countries, children in single-parent and no-parent homes often fare worse educationally than do children who live with both parents.20 These differences in educational outcomes by family structure have been found across a variety of measures, including attainment of a high school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma (GED), college attendance, performance on standardized achievement tests, and grade point average. Family structure has also been linked to students’ engagement in school (including their feelings of attachment to the school, relationships with teachers, and the value they place on receiving an education), which has further implications for their educational attainment.21 Thus, school connectedness and perceived school relevance are two important aspects of school engagement that may be linked to other educational outcomes, and may explain some of the link between family structure and educational attainment.
Research in low-income countries has also explored the link between children’s living arrangements and children’s educational attainment. For example, studies show that children in Northern Province, South Africa, had lower standardized test scores if they were living in a household without a father,22 and in northeastern Brazil, preschool children living in fatherless households had significantly lower cognitive performance.23 Similarly, in urban Peru, children living with both parents had better grades in school than did children in all other family formations.24
Other studies of South Africa indicate that children living with two biological parents were more likely to progress through school than were children with all other parental configurations (mother and stepfather, single mother, father and stepmother, single father, no parents).25 More recent research on South Africa confirmed a disadvantage for children living with a single father or neither parent, but found that children living with a single mother progress through school at the same pace as those with two parents.26 Thus, the link between children’s living arrangements and educational outcomes appears to be less clear and consistent in low-income countries. Some studies have found that not living in a household with a father increases the probability of children working, but the effects on schooling may not always be negative, and vary by child gender and age.27 Some previous research suggests that adaptation to apartheid-era family separation may explain why children from single-mother households may not be at a disadvantage. Another possible explanation for the finding is methodological, i.e., combining stepparents with biological parents in the same comparison group may obscure differences between children living with two biological parents and those living with single mothers.
Some research that has explored these issues across a number of low-income countries found that the absence of either a mother or a father independently and negatively affected enrollment in a pooled sample of 30 lower income countries,28 and living with neither parent seemed to have an almost consistently negative effect on schooling across a number of regions of the world.29 However, relatively few studies have consistently examined the link between family structure and educational outcomes in low-income countries. This essay aims to fill this gap by taking a more comprehensive look at this topic across a broad range of countries.
Goals of the Current Study
Given recognition of the importance of educational achievement and attainment for young people’s development and well-being, and the evidence suggesting that family structure can play a critical role in shaping children’s educational access and opportunities, this essay focuses on differences in educational outcomes by family structure across all regions of the world. It is possible that the influence of family structure may vary according to the type of educational outcomes examined. This essay focuses on three critical areas of educational achievement and attainment. These areas are 1) reading literacy; 2) normal progression through school (as measured by repeating a grade or being behind in school based on age); and 3) enrollment in school. The study on which this essay is based sought to answer three key questions:
Question 1: Is family structure associated with children’s educational outcomes, even when other possible factors explaining differences are taken into account (for example, parental education, family wealth, and parental employment)?
Question 2: Is family structure associated with children’s feelings of being connected to their school and their perceptions of how relevant school is for them?
Question 3: Are there important differences in the association between family structure and children’s education between major world regions?
This essay draws on original analyses of two international datasets to answer these questions. The first was the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which was used to examine the effect of family structure on educational outcomes among 15-year-olds in countries that are mostly considered middle- or high-income countries, though some countries in PISA may be considered low-income.30 The 2000 PISA data were also used to supplement these analyses.31 The second was from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), which was used to examine the effect of family structure on educational outcomes among similar youth in low-income countries.32
Specifically, using PISA data, the analyses examined students’ reading literacy and whether or not students ever repeated a grade.33 This analysis took into account the sex of the student, parental education, parental employment, family wealth, and the primary language spoken at home (language of target country versus a different language). These factors have been linked to school achievement, and are likely to differ across family types, which may help to explain family structure differences in educational attainment or achievement. For example, based on a resource perspective, two parents may have greater economic resources to contribute to the household, so that living with two parents leads to greater family wealth than living with one or neither parent, which in turn influences children’s educational attainment or achievement.34 Thus, family wealth may be a stronger predictor of children’s educational outcomes than family structure. Family wealth is analyzed separately from the other background factors to determine how much family wealth may explain the link between family structure and each outcome, after accounting for all other background factors.
The analysis also examined students’ connection to their school (school connectedness) and their perceptions of how relevant school is for their future (school relevance), as potential school-related factors that may help to explain why students in different family structures perform differently at school. Family structure is a measure of children’s living arrangements, indicated by an estimate of the number of parents in the household (two versus one versus no parents).35
Using DHS data, the study examined whether young people between the ages of 11 and 14 in low-income countries were currently enrolled in school and whether they were progressing on time through school. While grade repetition is a reason that a child might be behind grade for age, this measure is not completely comparable to the PISA measure of repeat grade, because being behind could also be caused by either beginning school at an older age (late enrollment)36 or having dropped out of school. These additional possible explanations are important to consider because late enrollment is much more common in low- income countries than it is in high-income countries. The analyses using the DHS accounted for factors that might explain the differences by family structure, namely parental education, child sex, region of country, and household wealth.
The results described below are based on analyses that account for all background factors, including wealth, although the way in which the results change before and after accounting for wealth are also noted in a few instances to demonstrate the unique effect wealth had on explaining family structure consequences. All figures are based on analyses that include all background factors, including wealth. Findings from separate analyses that added the measures of school connectedness and perceived school relevance are also discussed.
Children in two-parent families have higher scores on tests of reading literacy than do children in one-parent families or in families with no parents in the household in most middle- and high-income countries.37 Many of these differences persist after taking into account all background characteristics. Compared with students in two-parent families, those living with one parent had lower literacy scores in all but nine countries (out of 37 total) after factoring in all controls except family wealth. Once wealth was taken into account, we found fewer statistically significant differences, but the analyses indicate that children were still at a disadvantage when living in a single-parent family than when living in a two-parent family in 24 out of the 37 countries examined. The results from these models are presented in Figure 15.
Children who weren’t living with any parent had lower literacy scores than did those living with two parents in almost every country (35 of 37), after including all background characteristics, including wealth, in the analyses. Children living with no parents were also more disadvantaged than were those living with one parent, although these results were less consistent and the differences in outcomes between these two groups were smaller.
The analyses provided limited evidence that school connectedness and school relevance explain why children with different living arrangements experience better or worse educational achievement. For many countries, students had similar levels of school connectedness and perceptions of school relevance across all family structure types. This is important in that it suggests that student motivation for academic achievement does not vary much by family structure, even if access to schooling and the quality of schools does differ. Also, accounting for school connectedness and school relevance did not change the association between family structure and reading literacy for children in most countries. Israel and France were the only two countries in which family structure differences in school connectedness appeared to contribute to the explanation of why students living in single-parent families had lower reading literacy scores, on average. In these two countries, children living in single-parent families experienced lower school connectedness than did those living with two parents, which in turn was associated with lower reading literacy. Once school connectedness was included in the analyses, there were no longer any differences in reading literacy between children living with two parents and those living with a single parent.
Noteworthy Region-Specific Findings for Reading Literacy
As stated above, the differences in reading literacy were in the expected direction, with children living with two parents performing at a higher level than those living with one or no parents. However, there were several exceptions to these findings. Children living with one parent did not differ from those living with two parents in terms of reading literacy in five out of the ten Asian countries examined (Shanghai, India, South Korea, Macao, and Malaysia), after accounting for all individual and family background characteristics, including family wealth. Other studies have found that a large number of single mothers in Malaysia are widows, who are likely to be more supported by extended family members than are divorced single mothers.38 Thus, children living with widowed mothers may not experience the same negative consequences of living in a single-parent family as those living with divorced or never married mothers in countries like Malaysia. After accounting for all family and individual background factors, children living with no parents were no longer different from those living with two parents in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
In Europe, the performance of children living with one parent was similar to those living with two parents on tests of reading literacy in Romania, Russia, and Hungary, after accounting for all background characteristics. This same pattern was found in Italy and the Netherlands.39 Related research on families in Italy and other Southern European countries reinforces these results and suggests that the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and strong family ties can compensate for the lack or loss of one parent.40 Children living with two parents performed better than those with one or neither parent in seven out of the twelve European countries examined (in both Western and Eastern Europe).
In Turkey, no statistically significant difference was found in the reading literacy scores between children living with one parent and those living with two parents, after taking family background characteristics into account. Similarly, in Central and South America, no significant difference was found in reading literacy scores between children living with one parent and those living with two parents in Chile and Costa Rica, but in Peru, children living with one parent were found to have higher reading literacy scores than did those living with two parents. This finding for Peru was unexpected, however, and suggests the need for further exploration.41 The observed advantage of single-mother families in Peru may be explained by other family-, economic-, or school-level factors that were not the focus of this study, but that could be explained through future work.
Exploring Differences Within Two-Parent Families
One limitation of the PISA 2009 dataset is that it does not make it possible for researchers and others to compare two-parent families consisting of two biological parents and two-parent families consisting of one biological parent and one stepparent. However, this comparison was possible using PISA 2000 data. Analyses of the 2000 data suggest that meaningful differences exist between these two types of two-parent families. Grouping these families into one category, as was done in the PISA 2009 dataset, may may provide weaker results than when other family types are compared to families with two biological parents.
When the two different types of two-parent families (those headed by two biological parents versus those headed by one biological and one stepparent) were compared, the analyses showed that, on average, children in stepfamilies had lower reading literacy scores than did children living with two biological parents (in 10 out of 22 countries) or there were no differences between these two family types.1 Furthermore, in many countries, children living with one or no parents were more similar, in terms of their reading abilities, to children living with two biological parents. Thus, removing stepfamilies from the two-parent family category changed the comparison between two-parent and one-parent families in many countries. Prior research supports these findings, and indicates that the absence of either biological parent can have negative effects on children’s well-being, and that children in stepfamilies often do not have better educational outcomes than those in single- parent families, despite the presence of two parents in the household.
When examining a measure of family structure that was similar to the measure available in the 2009 data, there were fewer differences in reading literacy scores for students in two- versus one- versus no-parent families in high- and middle-income countries in 2000, compared with 2009.2 This finding may be due to increasing inequalities between two-parent families and families where one or both parents were absent, so that there were greater disadvantages to living without both parents in 2009. The finding may also be due to changes over time in the similarities and differences between stepfamilies and families with two biological parents. These changes may have influenced how students in two-parent families compare with those in other families when stepparents and biological parents are combined into the same category.
After accounting for all background characteristics, only seven out of 22 countries, mostly in Europe, showed significant disadvantages in reading literacy associated with living in a one-parent family (France, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, United Kingdom, and the United States).3 Students living with no parents had lower reading literacy scores compared with students living with two parents in five countries (Australia, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States).
1 These analyses were based upon a subset of 26 countries that were available in both the 2000 and 2009 survey rounds, and comparable measures were used in both sets of analyses. We first examined a measure of family structure similar to that used in the analyses of the 2009 PISA data. We then created a four-category measure of family structure, with separate categories for two biological-parent families and step families (plus categories for one-parent and no-parent families). Next, a measure of family structure similar to that used in the analyses of the 20009 PISA data was examined.
2 Artis, J.E. “Maternal Cohabitation and Child Well-Being among Kindergarten Children.” Journal of Marriage and Family 69 (2007): 222-36.
Coleman, M., L. Ganong, and M. Fine. “Reinvestigating Remarriage: Another Decade of Progress.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62, no. 4 (2000): 1288-307. Manning, W.D., and K.A. Lamb. “Adolescent Well-Being in Cohabiting, Married, and Single-Parent Families.” Journal of Marriage and Family 65 (2003): 876-93.
3 Model 2 could not be estimated for four countries due to missing data on the control variables.
Family structure was also linked to grade repetition (whether or not a student had ever repeated a grade), as seen in Figure 16. Children in two-parent families were significantly less likely to have repeated a grade than were children with one or no parents. Children living with one parent were at a disadvantage on this measure in 28 out of 34 countries, and children living with no parents were at a disadvantage in 29 out of 34 countries, after accounting for all background factors, including wealth. Children living with no parents were also more likely to repeat a grade than were those living with one parent in about half of the countries examined.
School relevance and students’ connections to school played only a limited role in helping to explain family structure differences in grade repetition. Perceptions of school relevance were significantly lower among children living with one parent (compared with living with two parents) in Ireland, which helped to explain why children living in a single-parent family in this country were more likely to repeat a grade. However, the association between family structure and grade repetition was not explained by school connectedness and school relevance in any other countries.
Noteworthy Region-Specific Findings for Grade Repetition
After accounting for all relevant background characteristics, children in one-parent families were found to be no more likely to repeat a grade than were those in two-parent families in New Zealand, Costa Rica, and in four of the 12 European countries, mostly in Eastern Europe: Russia, Romania, Hungary, and the United Kingdom. No differences were found in the likelihood of repeating a grade for children in no-parent versus two-parent families in Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The same pattern was found in results for no-parent and two-parent families in Peru and India. However, students living with a single parent in India actually had lower odds of repeating a grade than did students living with two parents.42
Expected Grade for Age
The measure of the expected grade for a child’s age (reflecting on-time progression through school) that was explored among low-income countries is similar to the grade repetition outcome in that it examines standard or expected educational progress. Among the 15 low-income countries examined, living with neither parent was almost always linked to increased chances that a child would be behind the expected grade for age. However, the results for children living with one parent were both less consistent and unexpected. That is, after accounting for all background factors, including wealth, children living with one parent were significantly less likely to be behind the expected grade for their age compared to children living with two parents in six of the 15 countries. This suggests an advantage for children living with one parent in these countries. Moreover, there were no differences in on-time progression for children living with one versus two parents in any other countries examined. Figure 17 presents a summary of these results, after accounting for all relevant background factors, including wealth.
Noteworthy Region-Specific Findings for Expected Grade for Age
Children living with single parents were less likely than children with two parents were to be behind the grade they were expected to be in given their age in most of Africa, in India, and in the Middle East (although not in Jordan).
The study looked at one additional measure of educational attainment, school enrollment, in low-income countries. This is a measure of whether students aged 11 to 14 attended school during the current school year.43Figure 18 summarizes the results of these analyses. The results indicate that, after taking all background characteristics, including wealth, into account, children living with neither parent were significantly less likely to be enrolled in school than were those living with two parents in 10 of the 15 countries of focus with data available. There were no countries where living apart from both parents was a significant advantage.
The effects of living with a single parent (in comparison with living with two) were both smaller and more variable than for living with neither parent. After accounting for all background factors, living with one parent was associated with a significantly lower chance of being in school in two countries (the Philippines and Colombia). However, the difference between children in one- versus two-parent families was not as large as the difference for children living with neither parent (compared to two parents). Also, there were three countries (Nigeria, Egypt, and Turkey) where children living with single parents had higher rates of enrollment in school than did those living with two parents, but in the majority of countries, enrollment rates did not differ between children with one versus two parents, both before and after accounting for family background factors.
Noteworthy Region-Specific Findings for School Enrollment
Living with neither parent was not significantly associated with a lower rate of school enrollment in any of the three Middle Eastern countries studied (Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt). Children in no-parent families were also not found to be at a disadvantage in Nigeria, where children sometimes live apart from their parents specifically for the purpose of attending school, and in South Africa, where almost 97 percent of children between the ages of 11 and 14 were enrolled in school regardless of whom they lived with. There was also no significant difference in enrollment between children living with two parents and no parents in Nicaragua.
Two of the four countries where children living with one parent had an enrollment advantage compared to children in two-parent families were in the Middle East (Egypt and Turkey); the advantage did not pertain to Jordan, where enrollments were uniformly high. Higher enrollment among children in single-parent families was also significant in India (only before accounting for differences in wealth), and in Nigeria.
Essay Summary and Discussion
This section of The World Family Map report highlights the important role that families play in young people’s educational achievement and attainment, although the essay has examined only one of many important dimensions of families in this essay: the number of parents in the household. Although we do not have information about the quality of relationships within these families, looking at the number of parents in a family is a strong starting point for better understanding the important contributions that families make to child development and well-being.
Throughout the world, children who don’t live with either parent often exhibit the worst educational outcomes: they are particularly disadvantaged in terms of educational enrollment and performance relative to children in two-parent families, and also experience a disadvantage when compared with children in single-parent families. Further, this essay presents fairly consistent evidence that living with two parents rather than one is associated with children’s educational achievement and attainment in high- and middle-income countries. These results suggest that there are important differences in terms of the social, emotional, and financial resources necessary for academic achievement that are available to children based on the number of parents in the household, even when biological and stepparents are combined.
As expected, among high- and middle-income countries, children living with two parents are more likely than are those living with one or no parents to follow a normal progression though school, and to experience higher levels of reading literacy. These results suggest that in many countries, parents serve as an important source of support and resources that can benefit their children’s education, with greater resources coming from two parents. In many European countries, parents’ skills and resources have a strong association with children’s cognitive abilities, and family conditions during childhood (including the number of parents children live with) play a key role in children’s long-term life chances.44
However, the results of this study also indicate that the positive effects of living with two parents were much less consistent in low-income countries. There were few differences between children living with one versus two parents in many low-income countries once all family and individual background factors were considered, and there was even an advantage to living with a single parent for some educational outcomes in some countries.
There are several potential non-competing explanations for why family structure seems to matter less in low-income countries. It is possible that family structure simply does not matter as much for children’s education in low-income countries where many obstacles to good educational outcomes remain. These obstacles are likely to affect children in all types of families, and include the availability and cost of schools, teacher quality, parental health, children’s health and nutrition, seasonal labor demands, and attitudes toward work and school. Thus, rates of school enrollment and children’s normal progression through school in low-income countries may be much more sensitive to these types of factors than to the number of parents in the household.45
In contrast, high- and middle-income countries have the resources to make high quality secondary education available to all, and in the context of greater equality, children’s success appears to be more sensitive to the home environment. In other words, there may actually be few differences between children according to whether or not their education is supported at home in low-income countries until larger obstacles to school success that affect entire communities are removed. In countries where education is universal, those in two-parent families may be best able to take advantage of its benefits. Such a pattern has been identified within developed countries where as school quality becomes more uniform, family-level factors differentiate students more.46 Additional research on the availability of secondary education for students in low- income countries suggests that family background may not matter as much in determining access to and enrollment in secondary education as it becomes more universal and countries implement policies to make access to education more equal across all families, although the quality of schools that children attend is likely to vary by a family’s social status and economic resources.47
The finding of an advantage of living with one parent in several of the low-income countries studied is supported by research in Asia, where children’s reading performance was found to be higher among children in single-parent families than in two-parent families in Indonesia and Thailand, but not in the three wealthier countries/regions that were also examined (Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea).48 Higher rates of extended families in these areas supporting single parents no doubt contribute to the success of children in these family types. However, research that explores the supportive role that extended families may play is not well developed, and the available information on this topic is inconsistent across countries.49 In addition to kin support, children may also benefit from living with a single mother given that mothers who have more decision-making power are likely to have more control over resources in the family and more freedom to invest in their children’s educational outcomes. This situation is especially likely in many low-income countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, where previous research suggests that mothers invest more resources in their children’s education than fathers do.50
Labor migration may also play a role in the relationship between family structure and educational outcomes in low-income countries. When a parent is absent from the household because he or she is sending money home while working in a more economically-advanced area, children may experience less disadvantage from a parent’s absence than may children whose parent was never part of the household or whose parents divorced. Additional income may even place such households at an advantage. For example, in South Africa, households receiving remittances were found to be 50 percent more likely to keep children in school.51 Thus, in low-income countries, incentives for separating the family in order to support it are greater than in high- and middle-income countries. Further exploration of the reasons that children may be living with only one or no parents, and more detail on who is in these households (many children that are not living with their parents may be living with grandparents, for example) will help us understand the processes occurring within these families that may benefit or harm children’s educational attainment and achievement.
Finally, the data from the low-income countries only allow for measuring educational progress in a very rough fashion (enrollment and on-time progression). If more sensitive measures of educational success such as literacy were available for the low-income countries, the contrast we observe in the importance of family structure might or might not remain. For example, in a study of children’s primary school educational completion and achievement in Ethiopia, researchers examined the relative influence of child, household/family, school, policy, community and nutritional factors on children’s completion of primary school as well as their achievement in school, and found that there are a number of important factors that influence children’s schooling in Ethiopia beyond family influences, and these factors differ based on the type of educational outcome examined (school completion versus achievement).52
As part of this discussion, the essay has touched on a number of possible reasons that children in one- or no-parent families may or may not be disadvantaged when it comes to their educational outcomes, although the specific context of each country and the diverse circumstances and motivations of parents and families make this story more complex. For example, the influence that children’s living arrangements have on their educational success may also be due to factors such as the role of extended family members, parent involvement, mother-father relationship quality, and other family-related factors that could not be examined here due to data limitations. It is important to consider how these factors differ for families in low- versus high-income countries, how they differ depending on children’s living arrangements, and how they work together to shape children’s educational attainment and achievement, as well as other indicators of well-being. A greater focus on these types of family processes may help to better explain why children’s living arrangements matter (or do not matter). A consideration of how factors at the school-, community-, region-, or country-level influence children’s academic opportunities, whether and how these factors interact with the family, and how the role of these various factors changes with greater economic development would also be valuable.53
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33 The extent to which grade repetition is supported in schools varies by country and may depend on cultural and social norms. Grade repetition may also be rare is some countries, so that the number of students who repeat a grade may be small across all family types.
34 Gillian Hampden-Thompson, “Are Two Better Than One? A Comparative Study of Achievement Gaps and Family Structure,” Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education 39, no. 4 (2009). Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background-Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes.” Volumn II. OECD, 2010.
35 Two-parent families consist of families with two biological parents as well as families with one biological parent and one stepparent. The proportion of children not living with either parent was small (less than 2%) in many countries in this dataset, and the results from analyses of no parent families in these countries should be interpreted with caution.
36 We use country-specific school start ages which range from 5 to 7 when calculating whether a child of a given age and completed years of schooling is behind.
37 Although some countries in PISA are considered lower income, the majority of countries in this data set are middle- and high-income. Thus this essay distinguishes between middle- and high-income countries in PISA and low-income countries in DHS.
38 Pong, Suet-ling. “School Participation of Children from Single-mother Families in Malaysia.” Comparative Education Review 40, no. 3 (1996): 231-49.
39 The results for Italy and the Netherlands were different when we examined earlier PISA data from 2000. See the text box on “Exploring Differences within Two-Parent Families” for more information. Using earlier data, we found that children in these two countries who were living with one parent had lower reading literacy scores compared to children living with two parents.
40 Hampden-Thompson, G., and S. Pong (2005). “Does Family Policy Environment Moderate the Effect of Single-Parenthood on Children’s Academic Achievement? A Study of 14 European Countries.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 36, no. 2 (2005): 227-248.
41 The results found here are consistent with other analyses conducted using PISA 2009 data. See OECD. “PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background-Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes.” Volume II. This report presents similar analyses comparing reading performance among students from single-parent families and those from other types of families before and after accounting for socioeconomic background.
42 Also unexpected was the finding that children that do not live with either parent were significantly less likely to repeat a grade than children living with a single parent in Qatar. However, the proportion of children living without any parents in Qatar and other countries was small, and these results should be interpreted with some caution.
43 In Brazil, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Africa the measure was whether the child was currently in school.
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46 Baker, D. The Schooled Society: The Educational Transformation of Postindustrial Society. (manuscript under review).
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49 Laurie F. DeRose et al., “Parental Marital Status and Children’s Education in DHS Countries” (paper presented at the Population Association of America Annual Meeting San Francisco, May 2012).
50 Lloyd, Cynthia B., and Ann K. Blanc. “Children’s Schooling in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Role of Fathers, Mothers, and Others.” Population and Development Review 22, no. 2 (1996): 265-98.
51 A. Sibanda, “Who Drops out of School in South Africa? The Influence of Individual and Household Characteristics,” African Population Studies 19, no. 1 (2004).
52 Woldehanna, Tassew, Nicola Jones, and Bekele Tefera. “Children’s Educational Completion Rates and Achievement: Implications for Ethiopia’s Second Poverty Reduction Strategy (2006-10).” Working Paper. London: Young Lives, 2005.
53 See Buchmann, C. and E. Hannum. “Education and Stratification in Developing Countries: A Review of Theories and Research,” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 77-102 for a review of the multiple levels that contribute to education inequality in low-income countries.