What happens to the children of lone parents1

Louie Burghes

It is tempting to say that society is and has long been concerned about the well-being of children who experience family disruption, or grow up in a lone parent family, or both. While historically many children lost a parent through death, it is parental separation (of married or cohabiting couples) and divorce that characterize most family disruption today.

It is about the consequences for children who have witnessed the breakup of their family in this way that much of the relatively recent anxiety has been concerned and from which much of the original research in the field has stemmed. In Britain, both were reactions to a divorce rate that began to rise in the 1960s and had increased sixfold by the 1980s. In 1992, almost fourteen in every thousand married persons obtained a divorce (Office of Population Censuses and Surveys 1994). At current rates, almost four in ten of today’s marriages will end in divorce (Haskey 1993).

It is perhaps not surprising that the more than doubling in the number of lone-parent families in Britain in the past twenty years— to more than 1 1/4 million lone parents with 2 1/4 million dependent children (Haskey 1994)—again kindled public debate at the beginning of the 1990s. The well-being of their children has not been, however, the only concern, and the recent and vehement attacks on lone parents, and particularly never-married lone mothers, may have other or additional causes and reflect different concerns (The Times 1991; McGlone 1994). At least two may be discerned. The first is the rising social security cost associated with increasing family breakdown and lone parenthood (Department of Social Security 1993a). The second is anxiety that the increase in single (never-married) lone motherhood reflects a demise of the ‘traditional’, intact two-parent family. For some social and political commentators, this represents the loss of a central building block of society, and a ‘coherent’ if non-Utopian

strategy for the socialization and rearing of the next generation (Halsey 1991; Dennis and Erdos 1992). In looking, therefore, at what happens to children who experience family disruption or lone parenthood or both compared with those who do not, there is concern about the well-being of the children, but there is also anxiety about the consequences for society. These two very different interests may be thought to reflect, perhaps rather arbitrarily, how children fare compared to how they behave and how society fares.

Some aspects of the physical, psychological, social and economic development, behaviour and achievement of children who have experienced family disruption, lone parenthood or both have been explored in research. Some aspects of their development have been tracked through their teens and into early adulthood. The employment, unemployment, occupational status and income of young people and young adults have also been investigated, as have their transitions to adulthood (leaving school and starting work, for example) and family formation. These various aspects of their development are referred to here as the ‘outcomes’. The issues of delinquency and criminal behaviour and their possible causes tend to have been researched separately from these developmental enquiries (Utting et al. 1993). The findings are reported briefly here.

There are five further sections to this chapter. The first considers the development of research into ‘outcomes’ for children in the light of family formation and family change. The second addresses the issue of ‘how good are the data’ with which these outcomes are measured and on which judgements are made. The third section looks at what the research findings tell us about family disruption, lone parenthood and the outcomes for children and young people, and the fourth considers what might account for these findings. The chapter ends by considering what might underlie the different ways in which children respond to family disruption and its aftermaths and what and how these might provide lessons for the positive benefit of families and children.