Raising Kids in Non-Nuclear Families

When you picture a stereotypical American family, what do you see? A mom? A dad? Two kids, a dog, and a white picket fence? For much of US history, this image of the “nuclear family” has been society’s norm. As we make our way into the twenty-first century, however, families around the country are challenging this stereotype. As our society becomes more tolerant of pre-marital sex, divorce, homosexuality, and more, the structure of many families is inevitably affected. What effect does this have on the development of American children? How will a child’s upbringing be different if a single parent, grandparents, or two parents of the same gender raise him?

Single Parenthood

Single-parent households are actually fairly common in the United States and are currently on the rise.  In 2008, about 29.5% of American households self-selected designation as a single-family household, approximately a two percent increase from 2000.[1] Many people find themselves in this type of family for a variety of reasons, including divorce, spousal death, or the choice to raise a child out of wedlock without the participation of both biological parents. The concept of a single-parent household varies from culture to culture and the incidence and the level of social acceptance is not universal. In more religious groups, for example, negative views of divorce and pre-marital sex can lead to a stigma surrounding single-parenthood.  The majority of single parent households are headed by the mother (84.1%) as opposed the father (15.9%).[2]

There’s often a concern that having only one parent around is not enough to raise a healthy and successful child. Many interesting studies have been done on the effect of growing up with a single parent on children’s develop-ment and socializa-tion.  The results unanimously support a traditional two-parent household, due to generally more financially secure background. Consequences can include lower achievement in school, greater levels of psychological distress,  earlier sexual activity, and increased substance abuse.[3] Hold out hope though—this correlation does not necessarily mean causation, and the trend can be reversed!


How can I more successfully raise my child alone?

–          Prioritize your education. Parents with a higher education level were able to communicate more effectively with their children, and often had healthier parenting styles.

–          Find a support network. Having a supportive network can help relieve stress on parents.  Family, friends, coworkers, or other community members can help reduce the pressure on a single parent to be in “parenting mode” all the time.  As the old adage says, “It takes a village to raise a child.”


Multigenerational Households

Many children also grow up in what is called a “multigenerational” household.  This refers to a home that is headed by a grandparent rather than a parent.  About 1 in 20 children in the United States grow up in such a household.[4] With the recent economic downturn, many families are finding themselves forced into this type of lifestyle.    Like single parent households, there can be many other negative confounding variables that affect children’s development, such as low socioeconomic status, exposure to substance abuse, and domestic violence.  However, because grandparents generally can be more stable and consistent than young parents, children growing up in multigenerational households have more consistently positive outcomes than single parent households.

What are the advantages of multi-generational households?

–          Higher grades. According to one study, African American children with an absent father figure who were raised in a multigenerational family had higher grades in reading than children in single parent households.[5]

–          Eliminated consequences of single-parenthood. In another study, children raised in a multigenerational family with an unmarried mother were just as likely as children in traditional two-parent families to graduate from high school and attend college. Additionally, the presence of grandparents can increase the financial stability of a household that may otherwise struggle to get by.

–          Healthier habits. According to a 1996 study, kids are much less likely to smoke or drink if they are raised with grandparents in the home.[6]


It is important to note, however, that other studies have proven these statistics inconsistent.  Some research suggests that multigenerational residences can actually lead to a higher risk of dropping out of high school.[7] These contradictions exhibit some of the uncertainty surrounding the long-term effects of different configurations of families.


Single-Sex Parents

As the number of states permitting gay marriage increases, the number of homosexual couples who want to start a family is on the rise. The desire for children is part of human nature, even in couples that cannot naturally conceive a child together. Though accurate statistics are unknown due to discrimination against homosexuals, it is estimated that anywhere from 1 million to 9 million children in the United States have at least one parent who is gay.[8] Gay couples can choose from a number of methods of childbearing. Many assist in raising children of whom they are a biological parent, often from marriages from before they came out. Lesbian women can elect to be artificially inseminated, and gay men often use a surrogate mother to conceive a child. Homosexual couples also have the option of adopting or fostering children.

There is much dispute regarding the ability of homosexual couples to raise children successfully. A common argument against the legalization of gay marriage is based around concerns that children will grow up to be sexually confused, socially inept, and otherwise uncommonly developed. However, research has shown that this is entirely based in speculation. Homosexual parents are just as capable, if not more capable, of child rearing as heterosexual parents in essentially every facet of development. One study revealed that same-sex parenting has no influence on prevalence of depression, low self-esteem, or anxiety. This parenting style also has no influence on sexual activity or orientation of adolescents from such families.[9] A second study showed no correlation between same-sex parenting and alcohol consumption, drug use, delinquent behavior, or exposure to violence.[10] Both studies revealed that development is influenced by the quality of parenting, not the sexual orientation of the parents.


What aspects of development do homosexual parents positively influence?

–          Acceptance. Unsurprisingly, children of gay parents are often raised to be more tolerant of diversity because they are raised in such a unique environment. [11]

–          Presence of role models of both sexes. While this may sound counter-intuitive, same-sex parents often seek out role models of the opposite gender in an attempt to compensate for the lack of parent of that gender.  Research suggests that lesbian mothers prioritize male role models higher than divorced heterosexual mothers.[12]

As a homosexual parent, what should I do to help ensure normal development for my children?

–          Focus on maintaining a warm relationship with your kids. Children who have a positive relationship with their parents tend to show fewer signs of depression, have higher self-esteem, feel more connected in school, and get into less trouble.[13]

–          Be upfront about your sexuality from the beginning. According to a 1989 study, daughters of lesbian mothers tended to have higher self-esteem if they learned about their mother’s sexual orientation at a younger age.[14]

–          Love your partner, regardless of their gender. Children are more likely to have successful relationships throughout life if they are exposed to low levels of parental conflict and perceive a strong, loving, relationship between their parents. This applies to heterosexual parents, too![15]


Written by: Emily Kreid and Lizzie Bartlett




[1] “Statistical Abstract of the United States.” United States Census Bureau, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2013. <http://www.census.gov/>.

[2] Single Mother Statistics. (2013, March 31). Single Mother Guide. Retrieved April 12, 2013, from http://singlemotherguide.com/single-mother-statistics/

[3] Deleire, T., & Kalil, A. (2002). Good Things Come in Threes: Single-Parent Multigenerational Family Structure and Adolescent Adjustment. Demography,39(2), 393-413.

[4] The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household. (2010, March 18). Pew Social & Demographic Trends. Retrieved April 12, 2013, from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household

[7] Ibid.

[8] Perrin, E. C., and Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2002). Technical Report: Coparent or Second-Parent Adoption by Same-Sex Parents. Pediatrics109(2), 341-44. Retrieved April 11, 2013, from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/

[9] Wainright, J. L., Russell, S. T., & Patterson, C. J. (2004). Psychosocial Adjustment, School Outcomes, and Romantic Relationships of Adolescents With Same-Sex Parents. Child Development75(6), 1886-98. Retrieved April 12, 2013, from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/

[10] Wainright, J. L., & Patterson, C. J. (2006). Delinquency, Victimization, and Substance Use Among Adolescents With Female Same-Sex Parents. Journal of Family Psychology20(3), 526-30. Retrieved April 12, 2013, from http://people.virginia.edu/~cjp/articles/wp06.pdf

[11] Perrin, E. C., et al.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Wainright, J. L., et al. (2006)

[14] Wainright, J. L., et al. (2004)

[15] Perrin, E. C., et al.


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