Single Parents, Happy Kids
October 10, 2007—Parenting can be much more challenging without two adults in the family to share the burden. Some of these challenges are shared by single fathers and single mothers alike, but others are more gender-specific, often because of stereotypes that permeate society's institutions. For instance, the presence of fathers in their children's life still may not be viewed as being as important as that of mothers, a mistaken impression that can have repercussions for single fathers in the workplace. At the same time, research proving that fathers perform much more than merely a biological or economic role for children presents a different challenge for single mothers, who may be made to feel their family is less than complete and their children are being shortchanged. But even as research reinforces the fact that men make unique and vital contributions to children’s lives, there is also no getting around the reality that some families do function, and function very well (thank you very much) without the traditional "one parent of each gender" structure.
Must single parents feel guilty and shortchanged, or can a single father or mother raise happy, healthy children? According to the Gurian Institute’s training director, Kathy Stevens, they certainly can—and she should know. Stevens, who raised two sons as a single mother, has coauthored several books on children’s needs. We had a short conversation about what a single parents can do to provide for a wider experience of role models in their life.
“Extended family is the first place you want to look,” says Stevens. “Are there family members who are good role models and who are available and willing to help? If there are, that’s the best possible alternative because then you’re making the connection to the children’s heritage.” These relatives may be aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins—even older siblings. But they do need to be the kinds of people you would want your children to emulate, and located near enough to be a regular influence.
If this is not an option, Stevens recommends choosing and building an extended family within your community: “In The Minds of Boys we talked a lot about building a parent-led team and evaluating membership on the team,” she says. “Who do you want on the team? Sit down with each one and talk about how much you appreciate that person being in your son’s life. Bring up the things you respect and appreciate about that person and let them know that’s what you’re hoping your son will see. Even if they’re just friends, you develop this small circle into an extended family.”
Boys certainly need adult female influences, but they also need males as biological role models. And, Stevens acknowledges, daughters need help from adults of both genders too. “Boys and girls both need their dads,” she points out. “Certainly girls need their dads just as much, but they need them for different reasons. There are a lot of risk factors for girls when dads aren’t there, they’re well documented. But you really want to be careful about the male role models you choose for girls. Girls tend to be victims of sexual abuse more than boys.”
Stevens emphasizes that one of the biggest challenges for single parents is to realize it is not an admission of failure to acknowledge they need help. “You can be a great mom,” she says from her own experience, “but you can’t be a great mom and a great dad.” She recommends that single parents ask for help, and then step back and allow that help to unfold. Just as married mothers sometimes want fathers to interact with children the same way they would, single mothers also may have difficulty leaving room for differences between nurturing styles. But such differences are actually the very reason children need multiple role models. Even within the parameters of similar lifestyles and values, there is often a lot of room for individual approaches.
Though it may be a challenge to find and develop relationships with people who are able to help, Stevens suggests getting to know the parents of your children’s friends. “What I found with my boys,” she says, “was that it was the fathers of their friends who reached out to them. That was a very good source for the boys, and for me: at times when my son was going through things that I couldn’t quite get a handle on, it gave me somebody to talk to.” The path to these relationships can be as simple as allowing your children to spend time with their friends and their friends’ families.
Single parents can also involve their children in activities that will help them develop their interests and where they will form their own relationships with the mentors they need. But of course, it’s important to choose activities where such people will reflect your values. “This is what is going to help him make decisions about character: what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable,” Stevens emphasizes. “When you invite people over for dinner, if he sees a man who has good manners, who behaves respectfully to the women around him, it will make an impact. Kids are always sifting information from the people around them.”
Of course, the responsibility doesn’t fall on single parents alone. Married parents can help by including single-parent families in their social circles, and reaching out to their children’s motherless or fatherless friends. According to Stevens, “everybody in the community has a stake in these kids. In fact, when we do parent programs, I always say to the dads in the audience, ‘If you’re being all you need to be to your own kids, consider taking on one other.’ If every good male role model did that, every kid would have somebody. I don’t think people fail to do it because they don’t care. They fail to do it because they don’t think about it.”