The secrets of success in single-parent households.

By Jolie Solomon
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."

Plamen Petkov

A Clearer Picture

We shouldn't dismiss all the cautionary tales. As a single parent myself, I'd be the first to tell you how much easier childrearing would be with a good partner. The small tasks of parenthood are endless, and the crises -- from a baby's earache to a death in the family -- hit harder when there's only one grown-up to handle the fallout.

But if we want to learn how children in single-parent families fare, more useful than knowing that a parent is single, experts say, is examining how the person became single, the resources he or she has, and the family's emotional climate. "Single parents are a strikingly diverse group," says Marsha Weinraub, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. In addition to unwed teens and divorced parents, they include middle-class women who choose to give birth or adopt on their own. And the fastest-growing group, though still small, is men like Liang. The 2000 census counted 2 million single fathers, up from 393,000 in 1970. Finally, while widowed parents make up the smallest percentage of single households, the specter of losing one parent to death has been particularly vivid since 9/11.

It's because previous research didn't acknowledge this diversity that there's been confusion about cause and effect, says Kathleen Gerson, Ph.D., a sociologist at New York University. Past studies failed to tease apart the effects of income and education, lumping the 15-year-old parent on welfare with the 40-year-old professional who adopts. Others looked at kids of recently divorced parents, says Clare Murray, Ph.D., a senior research psychologist at London's City University. They studied kids exposed to marital conflict, separation from a parent, and emotional and financial distress, then took the results and made generalizations about other single-parent families, says Dr. Murray. She is now studying solo parents and a control group of married couples who conceive by donor insemination.

Such carefully constructed studies will, experts say, provide a fuller picture of how kids are coping. "Family diversity is here to stay," says Stephanie Coontz, the national co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families in New York City and author of The Way We Never Were. "The question is no longer 'What kind of family is good, what kind is bad?' but 'How do we help every family minimize its weaknesses and build on its strengths?'"

Plamen Petkov

A Stable Home

As any parent with a clingy toddler knows, what kids want most is to feel safe. For a child who has lost a parent or is old enough to realize that one is less of a shield than two, that need may be stronger. "The first thing a child needs is stability," says Richard Bromfield, Ph.D., the Boston-based co-author of How to Turn Boys Into Men Without a Man Around the House. "The key ingredient is dependability, through your presence and love."

That's what Andy Trump, a businessman in northern California, discovered when he took sole custody of his daughter Diana, then 8. After years of turmoil from her parents' failing marriage, Diana was angry and Trump looked for ways to reassure her. In the end, what helped most was simply his steady presence.

Whatever arrangements solo parents make, experts advise keeping major changes to a minimum -- and cushioning ones they can't avoid. When I found a great babysitter for my then 5-month-old daughter, I worked hard to keep Nikki in our lives. Three years ago, when Lily was 4 and Nikki moved to Denver, I allocated precious vacation funds for a trip to visit her. Since then we've seen each other every year. We also call and send presents back and forth.

A sense of security is also something you create on a day-to-day basis through rituals like sitting down to dinner together. These days, it's hard for all families to make the time. But single parents may also find that the old traditions feel awkward or lonely. (Doesn't dinner with the kids mean Mom at one end of the table and Dad at the other?) But rituals don't have to come straight out of Leave It to Beaver, says Dr. Drexler. You can send the same message with a cuddle in a special chair the moment you walk in from work. And you'll find that kids cherish such traditions: Boston-based child psychiatrist Audrey Rubin, M.D., single mother of Sophia, 4, is struck by how much her daughter treasures the pre-supper ceremony -- with candles and a Buddhist-inspired prayer of thanksgiving -- that the two have developed. "She'll remind me if I forget," she says.

Who's The Boss?

Children also feel secure when they're given limits. "But if discipline is a problem for most families, it's even harder for single parents," says Dr. Bromfield. Studies by Sara McLanahan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Research on Child Well-Being at Princeton University in New Jersey, for example, have found that single mothers don't monitor their children's behavior as closely as married ones, a difference she says is due mostly to limited resources or lack of time.

However, Dr. Bromfield believes that another reason single parents may be more lenient is guilt. It's not easy saying no, and if a parent fears that her child is deprived of something -- time, attention, that second parent -- she may find it doubly difficult. Furthermore, single parents may fear making their children angry, especially if the kids are the main source of love and affection, says Dr. Bromfield. It's easier to hear "Mommy, I hate you!" if there's a spouse nearby to smile in sympathy.

"With two parents, one can be the heavy and the other can lighten up -- or keep you focused," adds Trump. The single dad often finds himself deep in negotiations with Diana, now 14, before he catches himself. "I'm better at it when our lives stay simple," he says. Once, after counting 32 separate trips to school and activities in a single week, he vowed to "keep things slow -- at least on weekends." The fewer errands and appointments, he says, the fewer opportunities for discord and more time to relax.

Solo parents may have one advantage over duos: Our word is law. I can think of many times I've been at a park, zoo, or restaurant and given my daughter a quick, clean no or yes to some request, then watched my married friends tussle over the same question. Stephanie Griffiths, a mutual funds executive in Toronto, says it's easier having no partner to negotiate with, even under painful circumstances. Her daughter, Zoí«, 10, has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. As the one who does the research, makes the appointments, and sifts through conflicting advice, Griffiths wants to be the person to make the decisions: "If I had someone else saying, 'No, she should eat this' or 'No, let's take away her computer time,' I know it would be harder."

The closeness between single parents and their children often creates a special bond. Studies have shown, for example, that adults in single-parent families read and talk more to their kids, says Dr. Coontz. Even so, boundaries have to be drawn. Too much intimacy and responsibility can end up being a burden to the kids because it cuts short their childhood, she says.

We Are Family

As single parents try to meet their children's needs, the biggest advantage they may have is changing public attitudes -- and the help that often springs up as a result. The better the support network, the better the job the parent does, research indicates, and the better the kids fare in such measures as academic performance. Kids of single parents need other adults for many reasons: to literally show that they will not be left alone if you're sick, or worse, and to model different varieties of adult -- and gender -- behavior. Eric Mattes, 22, notes that he had a lot of other grown-ups around while growing up. His mom, Jane Mattes, is the founder of Single Mothers by Choice (SMC), a support group in New York City. His godfather, who lived close by, was invaluable, says Eric. He could turn to him for a second opinion or a listening ear when he wanted to sound off.

Single parents need adult support too. Recently, in the message board of the SMC Web site, mothers traded tips for finding help. More than one worried about asking for assistance, fearful that family and friends might think, "Well, you brought this on yourself." When several parents expressed their reluctance to turn to even other single mothers, one from the Washington, DC, area chimed in with her local chapter's solution: a "Compassion Committee" that maintains a list of single mothers ready to help with errands or in emergencies.

Taking that idea a step further, Carmel Sullivan of Santa Monica, CA, founded, a Web site that matches single mothers who want to share a house or apartment. The innovative nonprofit venture, now 2 years old, is also something of a social statement: "Single parents want their own version of the extended family," says Sullivan. "We're saying, 'There are so many of us and we're not second-class citizens. We're going to band together.'"

Co-abode may illustrate the rich resources now made possible by the Internet, but old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar establishments are also pitching in as never before. The Jewish Community Center in New York City offers workshops from "If You're Thinking About Becoming a Single Mom" to "Raising Teens on Your Own." The Faith Community Church in The Woodlands, TX, is one of many Christian groups that have created programs geared specifically to single parents, in this case aptly named Oasis.

Still, in some instances, solo parents have to work to find the community that is most supportive. Dr. Rubin found it hard to connect with other parents at the all-couple social events sponsored by her daughter's nursery school and was surprised by a teacher's quick assumption about the cause of a problem Sophia was having at school: "I wonder if she's angry because she doesn't have a dad." Next year, Dr. Rubin is transferring her daughter to a school with a more diverse population of families.

Yet despite her daughter's less-than-ideal preschool experience, Dr. Rubin, like many other single parents, is finding that the stigma attached to her family is fading. With changing attitudes comes confidence. "It's harder for our children and it's harder for the parents, but I trust that I have enough wisdom and strength to compensate," says Dr. Rubin.

Warrick Liang, the single dad who adopted a baby from Vietnam, has no illusions about the challenges either. Liang, a probation officer, often works with troubled young men who were raised by single mothers. But he's confident he can do right by his son: "I'm stable. I'm giving Binh a loving home. We have lots of support. My son is going to be fine."

That kind of support feels good not just when times are tough but when you want to share the joy. When my daughter, now 7, did her first cannonball dive off the float in a Cape Cod pond this summer, she was surrounded by a whole cheering section of the families we vacation with every year. And when her first-grade class wrote autobiographies last year, I color-copied Lily's masterpiece titled "When I Was Young in Maplewood" and sent a copy to all the loving grown-ups who play a role in her life -- with a note pointing out where each person appeared.

Jolie Solomon is a single parent and writer in Maplewood, NJ.

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