Making a Difference: Nurturing Healthy Families

Peter Benson
February 4, 1999

If we could wave a magic wand, we could guarantee that every child had two responsible, caring, and committed parents. But given that this won't happen, our challenge is to discover ways to maximize the number of strong, two-parent families and to support all family efforts to raise healthy children, including those efforts by single-parent families. Several themes suggest directions for action.

Reduce Divorce and Separation Rates
Divorce and separation rates in the United States are considerably higher than in other industrialized countries. For the sake of our young people, we must begin reversing this trend and lower the divorce rate. Greater attention must be paid to providing the support and incentive to families to resolve conflicts and stay together when feasible. Marriage and parent education can play a role. Welfare policies that unintentionally discourage marriage must be re-examined.

Mobilize Assets for Single-Parent Families
Though reductions in the divorce and separation rates are possible in the long run, we must also recognize that there will still be many single-parent families. The assets that we see in thriving single-parent families suggest some important places were communities, schools, religious institutions, and others can be of particular help. By nurturing these kinds of assets, we can help to counterbalance some of the difficulties that youth in single-parent families tend to encounter.

Unfortunately, the issues that face children experiencing divorce and separation can often be taboo subjects in some settings?even though divorce is a widespread phenomenon. Schools, congregations, and community organizations could offer valuable support to children facing divorce by providing caring adults and positive peer environments in which to hsare feelings and gain support. Mentoring and peer helping programs are among the structures that can have a positive impact.

Promote Responsible Fatherhood.
Because mothers continue to bear primary responsibility for parenting, we must adjust societal expectations and norms so that fathers take responsibility for their children. If family disruption occurs, fathers need to be held accountable for economic, social, and psychological support of their children.

Address the Economic Issues.
It is important to recognize a critical obstacle in the way of most sinlge-parent families: poverty. Half of all single mothers live below the poverty line, versus one out of ten two-parent families. A partial solution is to strengthen regulations mandating child support by fathers. Other ways to address the economic needs include:

  • Making it feasible for single parents to attend college or receive vocational training
  • Providing social services that promote and support economic viability and independence
  • Ensuring that businesses have family-friendly schedules and policies advocating for equal pay for women
  • Providing affordable, quality preschool and after-school care

Make Children a Priority.
Many parents who go through divorce agonize over the impact on their children. But, if Whitehead and others are correct, one of the underlying issues in the negative impact of divorce is that many adults make choices based solely on their own need for happiness, hoping that the benefit will "trickle down"to children.

However, that has now happened. "Adults have benifited from the changes in family life in important ways,"Whitehead writes, "but the same cannot be said for children. Indeed, this is the first generation in the nation's history to do worse psychologically, socially, and economically than its parents."

Excerpted from Youth in Single Parent Families, by Peter Benson and Eugene Roehlkepartain, published by Search Institute. The full report is available from Search Institute for $4.99, please call 800/888-7828.