Challenges for Single Parents

Nearly 20 million schoolchildren come from single-parent families

By Jessie Abrams, Catholic News Service

This fall, the student body across the United States includes almost 17 million children raised by single mothers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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Another 2.6 million school-age children are being raised by single fathers, while 2.8 million more have neither mother nor father in the household where they live.

Children raised without the presence of both parents can face greater academic challenges, according to reports from the U.S. Department of Education. One study, for example, says children of single mothers without involvement by the nonresident father are much more likely to have disciplinary issues and repeat grade levels.

“The broad statement of course would be: the more stable home, the stronger marriage, the student will be better at everything," said Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Whether a couple’s strong marriage leads to better reading results for their children, Ristau declined to say.

In a 2005 study on “Working Single Mothers and Children’s Literacy Achievement: A Study of 18 Countries,” Gillian Hampden-Thompson and Jamie Johnston of the University of York in England found “a dramatic shift in the number of mother-only families,” attributing the shift to a variety of factors, including “no-fault divorce, the decline in the dominance of the Christian church, female labor force participation, and changing attitudes toward divorce and unmarried mothers.”

Brad Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, agreed that “declines in churchgoing are linked to the increase in single parenthood” and that many other factors contribute to single motherhood.

Wilcox, a Catholic, also directs the branch of the National Marriage Project at the university, a program initiated at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., to track the health of marriage in America, analyze social and cultural influences on the institution, and develop strategies to increase marital quality and stability.

Wilcox called marriage a “pro-child function” of society and said many children with only one parent do not receive the same amount of emotional and financial support as those children with two involved parents. Children are more likely to attend college if their parents stay together, he said.

“Success in school depends in no small part on a successful family life,” he said. “Clearly marriage is a key ingredient on average to successful family life.”

Susan Terbay, a single mother and regular columnist for Catholicmom, disagreed.

“Basically single parenthood is tough but no tougher than just being a parent,” Terbay wrote in one of her columns. “Family can come together and be a strong unit. ... It’s really up to the mother and to the children to make it happen.”

At the time of her divorce, Terbay was left to raise alone six children between the ages of 9 and 19. She said many in the church do not understand divorce, but she had a very supportive pastor who helped her deal with the guilt of breaking her vow to remain married until death and “letting God down.”

She said she is “not sure the church itself is equipped (to help single mothers) but I know there are women within the church who are.”

Terbay said she found trouble not in her everyday involvement with her children's schoolwork but when one of her kids was struggling.

“I think one of the hardest aspects of being a single parent is having no one to ‘sound off’ on regarding the children. As a couple, mother and father, you have the opportunity to talk together about the children’s issues, how to address them and share in the responsibility of their future,” she wrote in an e-mail to Catholic News Service.

The founder and editor of, Lisa Hendey, said there is very little outreach for single mothers from the Catholic Church. She said she is working to better reach out to single mothers through her Web site and the Catholic Church needs to show support for women in this situation.

Regarding her own children, Hendey said they often need specific help from her husband with subjects like math or science but come to her for questions about writing or religion.

To help fill in missing parts of the parental “skill set,” she recommended single mothers maintain regular contact with their children’s teachers. She also suggested spending time volunteering in the classroom to better understand how to reinforce learning at home or filling in as a chaperone on a school field trip, although she said she recognizes many single mothers spend most of their days at work.

She encouraged single mothers to foster a relationship with their child’s teacher as soon as possible and to establish regular communication with him or her through monthly conferences.

Christian Brother William Carriere said Catholic schools should consider the culture of each child in their school when developing their curricula.

After 17 years as the superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Orange, Calif., Brother William took on the role of executive director of the Western Catholic Educational Association, which accredits Catholic elementary and high schools in numerous Western states.

He said he kept track of children coming from single-parent homes as superintendent, but never with the idea that it would factor into a student's academic success.

Many studies show children of single parents “do have some disconnect with school,” Brother William said, but to link single parenthood to academic success in children is “dangerous.”

Many schools associated with the Western educational organization offer preschool and after-school programs where all children can get additional help with homework, if needed, he said.

Copyright (c) 2009 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops