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Are Children of Single Parents Less Satisfied With Life?

New research from Germany suggests growing up in a single-parent household produces a small but significant long-term negative impact.

No question about it: Single parenthood is hard work. You give your kids all you can, hoping that, even without a partner, you can provide a solid platform for their future success and happiness.

New research from Germany suggests that is an uphill battle.

"Growing up with a single mother—in particular if the father is absent for the entire childhood—predicts a small but stable decrease in life satisfaction across adulthood," write David Richter of the German Institute for Economic Research and University of Warwick psychologist Sakari Lemola.

This association "is partly explained by lower socioeconomic status and educational achievement, inferior physical health, poor social integration, and lower likelihood of romantic relationship success in adulthood," they write in the online journal PLoS One.

According to the latest Census Bureau statistics, 17.3 million American children under 18 live with a single mother, and another three million live with a single father. Just over 50 million live with both parents.

"These findings suggest that both parents still provide important resources, even when children have grown up and left their parents' home."

The study featured 24,123 Germans between the ages of 17 and 66. They provided information on a wide variety of factors, including their education, income, physical health, number of friends, and relationship status. They also reported their parents' occupation and education.

The researchers divided them into three groups: those who lived with both parents up to age 15; those who lived with a single mother for that entire period; and those whose parents separated sometime during their first 14 years, resulting in them living with their mother.

Among their findings: Individuals brought up by a single mother for their entire childhood earned an average of 30 percent less than those raised in two-parent families. They were more likely to be unemployed, less likely to be in a romantic relationship, and had fewer friends.

On a scale of one to 10, such participants rated their life satisfaction 0.2 points lower than those from two-parent families, and 0.1 points lower than those whose parents separated their childhood. That's intriguing, as it suggests the disruption caused by divorce has a smaller negative effect than that of never having a father at home at all.

The researchers add that these "differences in life satisfaction were similar for younger and older, male and female," and participants who grew up in capitalist West Germany and socialist East Germany.

Importantly, the researchers took into account the socioeconomic status of each participant's family of origin. That means these findings are not attributable to the fact that single-parent families tend to be worse off economically than traditional ones. (Needless to say, starting out life on a lower economic rung presents its own challenges to long-term satisfaction.)

"These findings suggest that both parents still provide important resources, even when children have grown up and left their parents' home," Lemola said in announcing the results. "During young adulthood, these resources may include financial support, as well as access to social networks, which is important to find a good job."

As usual with this sort of study, there is no clear proof of causality. Family genetic factors likely play a role in these results, influencing both the odds of parents divorcing, and the later life success of their children.

Nevertheless, the researchers write, "children in single-mother households are more likely to suffer from less-effective guardianship, and a higher likelihood of family distress and conflicts." There is evidence this takes its toll, both in the moment and years down the road.