Single Moms' Sons Can Succeed, New Research Shows

Development experts say that single moms' kids can still enjoy great success.

ByABC News
August 29, 2008, 3:05 PM

Aug. 29, 2008— -- Conventional wisdom is that boys who grow up without fathers are at greater risk of problems, from doing poorly in school to substance abuse. So how does that account for the high-profile successes of standouts such as presidential candidate Barack Obama, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and others who were reared by single mothers?

Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, tonight will accept the Democratic presidential nomination. Phelps just won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. They -- as well as Tour de France-winning cyclist Lance Armstrong, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and actor Benjamin Bratt -- are just some of the accomplished men who grew up in single-parent households for most or all of their youth.

For decades, researchers have said children from two-parent families do better than those raised by a single parent. That's still true, they say. But newer research pokes holes into that all-or-nothing approach, says fatherhood expert Michael Lamb, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge in England.

"The key point is yes, there is a risk," he says. "But it's not really a risk inherent in the single-parent family, per se. You can't assume that every child raised by a single parent is going to have difficulties. The majority don't."

Lamb says that decades ago, researchers were concerned about risks to children, and "their concerns were driven by a lot of cultural assumptions, which led them to propose kids are better off in the traditional family."

"The evidence, on the whole, hasn't supported that, but the beliefs have persisted in society," he says.

Another expert on fatherhood, sociologist Tim Biblarz of the University of Southern California-Los Angeles, says the evidence shows economics plays a significant role in the risk for negative outcomes, such as poorer grades and lower educational attainment, substance abuse or poor social adjustment.

"Those who grow up with single mothers with adequate socioeconomic resources tend to do well. The children of poor single mothers are more at risk," Biblarz says. "Many of the results that say that kids are at increased risk for negative outcomes have to do with economics."