Study: Mother’s education, family stability at heart of child’s success

Research from two Western professors is challenging the longstanding myth that a child’s success in life depends on his or her family structure. Instead, Western Sociology professor William Avison and Brescia University College professor Jamie Seabrook are pointing toward a mother’s education as the key indicator.

Their paper, Family Structure and Children’s Socioeconomic Attainment: A Canadian Sample, published in the Canadian Review of Sociology, stems from a London, Ont.-based study spanning nearly two decades. The researchers followed more than 1,000 families in both single- and two-parent households.

“What we’ve learned is that not all children who grow up in single-parent families are necessarily going to be affected adversely,” Avison said.

In following the large cohort of local families, the study found children of single mothers were just as likely to achieve educational and economic success as children from two-parent families – provided the mom was educated.

“Single-parent families are always challenged in terms of income, simply because there’s only one bread winner – usually the mom. The key issue is, these moms were not different from married mothers in terms of their educational attainment. That makes a difference in how their children develop,” Avison said. “The kids might be income deprived to some extent, but the nature of the environment and household was similar.”

“Much of what we claim to know about single-parent families and the impact on children is actually driven by studies that focus on families where moms are both income disadvantaged and educationally deficient,” he continued.

The study used three measures of success and found the following to be true:

  • In terms of a child’s education, family structure had no effect. Provided equal education of their mothers, children were on equal educational footing and just as likely to graduate from college or university;
  • In terms of occupation, children from stable single-mom households had better jobs than children from stable two-parent families; and
  • In terms of income, family structure had no impact whatsoever.

There’s a key finding worth noting among those points, said Seabrook, who conducts research within Brescia’s Division of Food and Nutritional Sciences. The stability of the child’s household is an important factor in determining a child’s future success.

“Usually, single parents all get lumped together in research. You’re either a two-parent family or a one-parent family,” Seabrook said. “The problem is, there’s so much heterogeneity in single-parent families. The parent could be single, but stable, rather than a single mom who has many partners over the course of a kid’s childhood. That’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. If they all get lumped together in the same group, it might sometimes appear kids from single parent families don’t do well.”

Seabrook continued, “If these single-stable moms had equivalent levels of education, or higher levels of education, to the moms of two parent families, the kids from single-parent families actually did a lot better. There’s actually something about the stable, single mom family – and we could argue resiliency, the relationship between the mom and the child – that really had an effect on how these kids did over time.”

In other words, a family’s stability is far more important than its structure.

A lot of data looking at children’s success as it relates to familial structure comes from the United States, Seabrook added. Different factors apply to families in Canada. American families are more likely to contend with school quality, neighbourhood disadvantages, race and ethnicity, alongside familial structure.

“This kind of thing hadn’t been done in Canada before – following these kids this long over time,” he said, and because of this study, another finding emerged.

“Literature shows, from the United States, kids from single-parent families are more likely to separate or divorce – that’s a fair argument. What we found was for those kids who had married, 12 per cent of the children raised in stable, two-parent families had separated or divorced, but the kids from stable, single-mom families, only 3 per cent had separated or divorced. Again there’s the stability factor,” Seabrook continued.

Avison noted study findings can apply to children in middle-sized cities in Canada, and we must keep in mind today some women who have children choose not to marry.

“What we found with this cohort of families might not hold for all families. But the take home message is we ought not assume growing up in a single-parent family is always going to result in occupational and educational challenges for kids,” he added.