Divorced parents do just as good a job as married couples in raising kids, a new study claims.
This new research overturns a commonly held belief that families fractured by divorced parents become inferior havens for children compared with stable homes.
"My findings that parenting practices are unrelated to divorce appear to fly in the face of accepted wisdom," said Lisa Strohschein, a sociologist at the University of Alberta in Canada.
Some divorced couples may overcompensate for a split-up by focusing more attention on their kids, which could partially explain why divorced and married households scored similar child-caring marks.
"Some parents may overcompensate and be extra-conscientious, and there are definitely some parents who do have problems parenting afterwards," Strohschein told LiveScience. "But on average, parents don't change their behavior."
Strohschein examined data collected as part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NSLCY) in 1994 and 1996. The surveys followed about 5,000 Canadian children living in two-parent households as of 1994 and compared changes in parenting practices among the 200 households with subsequent divorces and those that remained intact.
Parents answered survey questions about three parenting behaviors:
- Nurturing: How often parents praise a child; how often parents play games/sports and laugh with children.
- Consistency: How often parents follow through with forewarned punishment, for instance.
- Punishment: How often parents yell or use physical punishment, versus calmly discussing or suggesting alternative ways of behaving to their misbehaving child.
The results are published in the October issue of the journal Family Relations and show no differences between divorced and stably married parents for any parenting behavior either before or after a divorce.
"Although divorce may be stressful, it doesn't necessarily transform parents into bad or indifferent parents to their children," Strohschein said.
However, Strohschein found that parents who had no more than high-school degrees became less consistent and relied more on punishment to discipline misbehaving children over the course of the study compared with parents who had post-secondary degrees (college and/or graduate school).
Households with an annual income ranging from $40,000 to $59,999 in 1994 showed a greater decrease in nurturing behaviors compared with wealthier homes (more than $80,000 annually).
Past research has suggested that divorced parents fail to keep routines and maintain control over the household. In addition, studies have shown divorced parents may blur the boundaries of the parent-child relationship by turning to their children for solace.
"Undoubtedly, some parents will be overwhelmed and unable to cope with the demands of parenting in the post-divorce period," Strohschein said, "but the expectation that all parents will be negatively affected by divorce is unfounded."
The new information, she says, could be used to refine government and other programs dedicated to helping families during and after divorces.
"It does parents a disservice to automatically assume that they will have problems after divorce," Strohschein said. "That education and to a lesser extent income predict parenting behavior says much more about what makes a difference to parenting behavior."
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Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.