Single Parents' Secrets of Success

The secrets of success in single-parent households.

Introduction

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Plamen Petkov

Plamen Petkov

Even before Warrick Liang traveled to an orphanage in Vietnam to bring home his infant son, he knew that being a single dad was no small feat: He would need all the help he could get. So not only did he find a Vietnamese woman to care for his son while he worked, Liang also called a long list of friends in the San Francisco East Bay community where he lived, asking each to make a once-a-week commitment as evening helper.

By the time Liang brought 5-month-old Eric Binh home, in December 2001, he had someone lined up for every night of the work week. Monday through Friday, a friend was there to help make dinner and wash the dishes while Liang fed Binh, gave him his bath, and sang his son a lullaby. "If I had more people offering, I'd take them up on it," he says cheerfully.

If Liang seems an unlikely poster boy for single parents, that's because the national image needs an update. The 2000 U.S. Census reveals a record 19 million children living with one parent, up from 15.9 million in 1990. Picture a single parent with kids and you're seeing 12 million families, or 17% of all American family households. What's more, Liang is part of a growing group of middle-class parents opting to raise children solo. The reasons for the rise are many, say sociologists and demographers, including changing attitudes toward divorce and gender roles.

Meanwhile, debate on the fate of single-parent families has roiled American culture for years. Dozens of studies seem to prove our worst fears: Kids in single-parent households are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs, fail at their relationships, and go on to raise kids out of wedlock. The larger picture, however, tells a different tale. As experts step back from the debate, they're seeing that the fate of these kids isn't so clear -- or so grim. New research and reviews of older studies are reaching a different, far more optimistic conclusion. Yes, single-parent families are vulnerable. And yes, "a mom-and-dad family works great -- providing it is working great," says Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., a research psychologist at Stanford University's Institute for Research on Women & Gender in Palo Alto, CA. "But it's not the only way to raise a healthy child."

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