Let’s put aside the “binder of women” for the time being, and look at one of the other peculiar turns in last night’s presidential debate.

That would be when a question about AK-47 assault rifles led Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to wax romantic about marriage.

Here was the exchange:

Candy Crowley: Governor Romney, the question is about [limiting the availability of] assault weapons, AK-47s.

Romney: ... What I believe is we have to do, as the president mentioned towards the end of his remarks there, which is to make enormous efforts to enforce the gun laws that we have, and to change the culture of violence that we have. And you ask how — how are we going to do that? And there are a number of things. He mentioned good schools. I totally agree. We were able to drive our schools to be number one in the nation in my state.

And I believe if we do a better job in education, we’ll — we’ll give people the, the hope and opportunity they deserve and perhaps less violence from that. But let me mention another thing. And that is parents. We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the, the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea.

Because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will, will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity, and bring them in the American system.

That exchange brought the debate down the same dubious path as both party’s conventions, which were so obsequious toward the institution of marriage that they at times seemed in danger of giving way to one of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s mass weddings.

Afterward, many unmarried parents noted that their experiences had been ignored in the convention’s main speeches. Post editor and single mother Tracy Grant made the excellent point that despite the dismissal, single mothers raised both President Obama and Paul Ryan.

President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talking past each other, and many parents. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The candidates were, I think, trying to say that kids from disadvantaged homes with sub-standard supervision and stimulation can fall off track and end up perpetuating a culture of violence.

But both focused on the wrong culprit. Neither tackled what researchers and analysts now say is the much larger issue when it comes to involved parenting that opens opportunities for kids. Those are the education levels and economic opportunities of the parents — not marital status.

Just this week, several neurological studies came out showing correlations between a child’s brain development and his or her parent’s income and education level. Marital status had nothing to do with the significant differences recorded.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Ryan, an assistant professor in Georgetown’s psychology department who studies families, has found that politicians’ focus on marriage is misplaced. A paper she published last year concluded:

“The present study’s findings suggest that if government efforts to promote marriage fail to recognize that parents’ characteristics partly determine their marital status, such efforts risk encouraging parents, and parents-to-be, that being married itself will enhance their children’s development rather than their combined ability to create positive developmental environments.”

She’s found that when married and unwed mothers with similar income and education levels are compared, they show similar levels of involvement. For fathers, the likelihood of involvement corresponds to income and education to an even greater extent.

The father’s likelihood to be married relates to these trends to, but as a byproduct, not as a catalyst.

Marriage does not lead to parental involvement, the data suggest. Economic and educational opportunity lead to parental involvement. It just so happens that it can also lead to marriage.

“It’s not fair to argue that unwed parenthood is associated with an overall decline in” parental involvement, Ryan told me.

And what of the contributions of stepparents and unmarried parents who live together? They seem to have been entirely dismissed.

The ranks of unwed parents are growing. A recent Pew poll found that unmarried women gave birth to four in 10 babies in 2010.

They are not a monolithic voting bloc and neither are they a monolithic punching bag.

Unmarried parents hail from all sorts of backgrounds and tackle all sorts of struggles. It’s about time our candidates understand that marriage certificates often don’t have much to do with those struggles. Perhaps, if Obama or Romney asked, an advocacy group could offer up whole binders full of their stories.

Have you noticed a bias against single parents this campaign season?

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