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When raising kids, how much does a spouse matter?

In the Lewis family, four generations live under one roof and help care for Mari, 8. Here, Mari is shown with her mother Brianna, at left; her great-grandmother Virginia; and her grandmother Rebecca. (Lewis family photo)

Children of single parents get a bad rap. According to the media and pro-marriage organizations, these children are at greater risk than the children of married parents for an array of problems — such as substance abuse, teenage pregnancy and dropping out of high school.

When I was writing “Singled Out,” my first book about unmarried Americans, I read much of the research on children of single parents, instead of relying solely on claims in the media. I discovered that the dire descriptions of these kids’ fates were often exaggerated or just plain wrong.

Sometimes, when those children did have more problems, the fault was not in the single parenting. For example, in research in which the same children were followed while their parents are married and then after they divorced, the children were already experiencing difficulties while their parents were still married and at each other’s throats.

Often overlooked in the debates about different kinds of families is that single parents are not always raising their children single-handedly.

In one of the most comprehensive studies of children raised in different kinds of families, more than 11,000 eighth-graders from a nationally representative sample of schools were surveyed and then followed for six years. The adolescents were from 10 kinds of households, including those in which they were raised by married parents, cohabiting parents, parents and stepparents, grandparents (with no parents present), single mothers, single fathers and single mothers (divorced or always-single) in multi-generational households.

The conventional wisdom insists that the children of married parents do particularly well; and in this study, they did. But the children of divorced single parents in multi-generational households did just as well. They were no more likely to drink or smoke. They were not any less likely to graduate from high school or enroll in college. The age at which they began having sex was no younger.

There was one group of adolescents that did even better than the children of married parents – those who were raised in multi-generational households by mothers who had always been single. Those youths were less likely to drink or smoke than the children of married parents. More of them graduated from high school and enrolled in college. (They did not differ in the age at which they initiated sexual activity.)

Researchers do not yet know for sure why the children of single parents in multi-generational households do even better than the children living with only their married parents. Perhaps it’s because they have a mini-version of the village that it takes to raise a child, all under one roof.

For my latest book, “How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century,” I traveled around the country to see what multi-generational families looked like from the inside. In a suburb of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minn., the Lewis family welcomed me into their semi-detached townhouse and told me about their lives. The emotional center of the four-generational household is Mari, who was 8 years old when I visited. Her mother Brianna, 26; grandmother Rebecca, 54; and great-grandmother Virginia, 83; all adore her.

Mari has rarely had a babysitter, because she has so many relatives around. During the school year, her grandmother takes her to the bus in the morning and her mother picks her up at the end of the day. Her great-grandmother, a retired nurse, spends lots of time with her during the summers. (Virginia heads south in the winter.)

Brianna works in human resources and Rebecca in health and wellness. The two of them split household expenses down the middle. Brianna does more of the household chores; she likes doing things her way.

Mari and her mom are dancers. After rehearsals, sometimes the whole family goes out to dinner together, including Rebecca’s son and his partner, who live nearby.

Brianna, who has always been single, had Mari when she was 18. She needed lots of help, and her mother was happy to provide it. Research suggests that, when things get tense in multi-generational households, conflicts over child-rearing approaches are often to blame. The Lewises appear to have avoided that pitfall. As Brianna became more confident in her child-rearing, she took the lead, and Rebecca followed, even when that was hard for her.

Brianna wants Mari’s world to extend well beyond her. “I don’t ever want Mari to think that I’m just the end-all or be-all or that I have all the answers, because guess what – I don’t,” Brianna told me. “I have a close network of people that I want her to trust. If she feels like she can’t come and say something to me but she needs to get it out there, I want her to go say it.”

Brianna is interested in marrying some day and moving to a place of her own, but she’ll still want her mother around: “I need my mom in my life every day. … My daughter does not know any different than [seeing] my mom every day.”

Virginia has a special place in all of their hearts, too. “She’s like my best friend,” Brianna says. Rebecca tells me how lonely she feels when Virginia leaves for the winter.

The harmony I observed in the Lewis household did not come easily. For example, there was a time when Rebecca and Brianna shared all of their closest friends; that felt too enmeshed and tensions festered.

Reflecting on multi-generational living, Brianna noted: “Anyone who thinks about doing this needs to realize that there are going to be your challenges. It’s not going to be this perfect world. … It takes efforts [from everyone involved] to make it work.”

To Brianna, though, the work is worth it.


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