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The Kids Will Be All Right, Even Without the Nuclear Family

Gay, straight, single, divorced: Five studies that prove that the who of family matters a lot less than the how when it comes to raising happy, healthy kids.
The Cleavers are no longer the face of healthy parenting—and that's OK. (Photo: Universal Studios Home Entertainment)

The Cleavers are no longer the face of healthy parenting—and that's OK. (Photo: Universal Studios Home Entertainment)

Over the past half century, the American family has shape-shifted. Gone is the dominance of the nuclear family; in its place, a mishmash. In 2010, Pew Research published the popular study The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families, which pointed out that changing lifestyles and economics over the past half-century have drastically changed what the American public thinks the word family means. A large majority of us now consider pretty much any arrangement where there is a child involved—a single parent, two gay parents, people who are unwed and committed—to be a family.

But America is still uneasy about how all these changes affect its children. Nearly 70 percent of respondents to the Pew study felt that the trend toward single women having children was unhealthy, and just over 60 percent of respondents felt that a child needed a mother and a father “to grow up happily.” Almost 42 percent said that children of divorced parents face “a lot more challenges;” 51 percent felt children of gay and lesbian couples did, too.

We are, it turns out, ill informed. To raise a healthy child, family matters—a whole lot. But as these studies all show, the who of family matters a lot less than the how.

It has long been known that adopted children have higher rates of school and behavior issues. But, as Dutch psychologists Femmie Juffer and Marinus H. van IJzendoorn show us, there are other ways to look at a kid’s future. Self-esteem is considered one of the most important pillars of healthy personality development, so the researchers set out to see if adopted kids have lower self-esteem than biological children. In 2007, they surveyed nearly 90 studies that compared the self-esteem of adopted and non-adopted kids. “Contrary to expectations,” they found, “adopted children are able to develop normative levels of self-esteem.” Their findings held up for kids adopted as babies or later in life, and for international and mixed-race adoptees. The findings, they say, should be considered “evidence for adopted children’s resilience to recover from severe deprivation ... and to catch up with their nonadopted peers.” Not surprisingly, the pair speculate the key is parenting: “Adoptive parents are able to offer the child secure parent-child attachment relationships—a well- known protective factor—from which the child may profit in terms of positive social development and positive self-esteem.”

—"Adoptees Do Not Lack Self-Esteem: A Meta-Analysis of Studies on Self-Esteem of Transracial, International, and Domestic Adoptees," Juffer and van IJzendoorn, Psychological Bulletin, 2007

2. Don’t Blame the Single Parent; Blame the Poverty and Instability

Today, more than a quarter of children in America are being raised by a single parent. At a glance, that sounds like a bad thing: Children of single parents have higher rates of poverty, below-average social and cognitive skills, and lower rates of completing school and finding work. But no study has proven that single parenting in itself is harmful. Instead, it’s the poverty, mental health issues, and unstable relationships single people often carry with them into parenthood that seem to do damage. Columbia University researchers Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Jane Waldfogel write: “Recent research holds that it is in large part the stability of the traditional family structure that gives it its advantage.” Family structure and family stability are sometimes related, but we can’t vilify single parents by assuming they are instable. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics supports single-parent adoption by those with adequate financial resources.

—“Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing,” Waldfogel, et al., The Future of Children, 2010

3. Divorce Doesn’t Necessarily Harm the Child. How the Adults Handle the Divorce May.

Penn State sociologist Paul R. Amato, in his 2010 review of a decade of divorce research, puts it simply: “Rather than ask whether divorce affects children, a more pertinent question may be how and under what circumstances does divorce affect children either positively or negatively?” The style of the split—acrimonious or amicable—appears to be more important than the fact of the split itself. Amato suggests it would behoove researchers (and society) to pay attention to “the factors that produce variability in children’s adjustment following divorce.” Divorce, like marriage, is what you make of it, his colleagues have found. Amato approvingly quotes one 2006 study that offered this glass-half-full analysis: “Although divorce leads to an increase in stressful life events, such as poverty, psychological and health problems in parents, and inept parenting, it also may be associated with escape from conflict, the building of new, more harmonious fulfilling relationships and the opportunity for personal growth and individuation.”

—“Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments,” Paul R. Amato, Journal of Marriage and Family, 2010

4. Healthy Children Need to Experience Healthy Adult Relationships

Regardless of whether parents are gay or straight, divorced or married, cohabitating, or single and dating, the strength of the adult relationship in a household strongly correlates with kids’ well-being. One 1998 paper looked at how lesbian and heterosexual couples divided up household work, and the impact on their children’s development. The research team examined the division of labor in the households, the levels of love and conflict between couples, and the children’s social competence and behavior. Parents’ satisfaction with each other and their roles at home mattered most; even if these roles were unequal, as long as parents were content, their children generally were better adjusted.

—“Division of Labor Among Lesbian and Heterosexual Parents: Associations With Children’s Adjustments,” Raymond W. Chan, et al., Journal of Family Psychology, 1998

5. Most Kids From Non-Nuclear Families Are All Right

“Numerous large-scale studies show that the vast majority of the children and adolescents who spend their childhoods living apart from one of their parents are well adjusted,” writes University of Cambridge psychology researcher Michael Lamb in his 2012 review of hundreds of studies on family structure and child development. Lamb explains that our views on what makes a healthy child originated in the early 20th century with psychoanalysts who depended on clinical observations rather than empirical research like that conducted in the last 40 years. The conclusions from recent studies are clear: The biological nuclear family is not a necessary precondition for raising a healthy, hearty kid. As Lamb puts it, “Dimensions of family structure—including such factors as divorce, single parenthood, and the parents’ sexual orientation—and biological relatedness between parents and children are of little or no predictive importance once the process variables are taken into account, because the same factors explain child adjustment regardless of family structure.”

—“Mothers, Fathers, Families, and Circumstances: Factors Affecting Children’s Adjustment,” Michael E. Lamb, Applied Developmental Science, 2012

Five Studies is Pacific Standard’s biweekly column that identifies and analyzes the best academic research to deliver new insights on human behavior.

This post originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “The Kids Will Be All Right.” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.