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On Mother’s Day, a hopeful finding for single mothers and their children from a Cornell researcher


Mothers can be a positive influence in their children’s lives, whether or not they are single parents. A new multiethnic study at Cornell University has found that being a single parent does not appear to have a negative effect on the behavior or educational performance of a mother’s 12- and 13-year-old children.

What mattered most in this study, Cornell researcher Henry Ricciuti says, is a mother’s education and ability level and, to a lesser extent, family income and quality of the home environment. He found consistent links between these maternal attributes and a child’s school performance and behavior, whether the family was white, black or Hispanic.

"Over all, we find little or no evidence of systematic negative effects of single parenthood on children, regardless of how long they have lived with a single parent during the previous six years," says Ricciuti, who is professor emeritus of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell.

"The findings suggest that in the presence of favorable maternal characteristics, such as education and positive child expectations, along with social resources supportive of parenting, single parenthood in and of itself need not to be a risk factor for a child’s performance in mathematics, reading or vocabulary or for behavior problems," Ricciuti says.

The study is a follow-up of children who were assessed when they were 6 and 7 years old. The first study, published in 1999, found that single parenthood did not affect young children’s school readiness or social or behavioral problems.

"In this follow-up study, we wanted to assess whether adverse effects of single parenthood emerged as children reached 12 and 13 years of age, and they did not," says Ricciuti, whose latest study is published in the April issue of the Journal of Educational Research (Vol. 97, No. 4).

Ricciuti’s sample included almost 1,500 12 and 13-year-old children from white, black and Hispanic families in the National Longitudinal Survey of Labor Market Experience of Youth. Single motherhood was defined as the mother having no partner or spouse living at home at the time of the survey. The average mother’s age at birth of her child was 20 to 21.

Ricciuti cautions that many single mothers lack the social, economic or parenting resources that are known to promote good parenting. He stresses the need for making such parenting resources more readily available to single mothers, thus helping them to provide more supportive home and family environments for their children. "Potential risks to single-parent children could be greatly reduced or eliminated with increased parental access to adequate economic, social, educational and parenting supports," Ricciuti concludes.

Susan S. Lang | Cornell News
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