Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Power in single-parent families

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Single parents are a vulnerable group that exist at the intersection of three main issues affecting their wellbeing and that of their children: socioeconomic resources, psychology, and education. By considering individual disciplines, we discuss how power dynamics within and between Education, Economics and Psychology influence them.


It seems obvious that single parent families have existed for all of human history, whether due to separation, widowing, or parents simply being single. However, they were not studied until relatively recently: some of the earliest work began around 1920-30 (and this was neither unbiased nor rigorous)[1] and until around the 1970s, the subject was not widely studied. It may be argued that, as single parents are overwhelmingly women,[2] the delay was because this gendered social issue did not garner interest from academics until more women were academics. Possibly for this reason, relatively little research exists on single parent families.

Power inequalities remain a factor within the study of single parents. Firstly, a large majority of existing studies on single parent families were done in the “Global North”, specifically the U.S. Although some academics in recent years have attempted to compare single parenthood between different countries,[3] more research is nonetheless necessary to understand the transferability of most studies. In a similar vein, race is also being studied as a dimension of single parenthood: findings indicate single parenthood may be viewed differently in different racial subcultures,[4] although children's educational outcomes are dependent on parental relationships and involvement rather than race.[5] Finally, an unusual dynamic surrounds gender as a factor in single parenthood: most single parents are women, so single fathers are often studied separately, and with different results.[6]


Power in Education is the fundamental precondition for political development, democracy and social justice.[7] Education is crucial to children's futures; however, children in single-parent households experience “a greater risk of dropping out of school, of leaving home early, of poorer health, of low skills and low pay.”[8] In the ‘Global North’, governments allocate funds to education for single-parent families. In the ‘Global South’, such funds don’t exist, though education is especially vital in single-parent families in the ‘Global South’ for three reasons. Firstly, “young single mothers are even less likely to have a good education or job experience, which relegates them to low paying jobs within the range of jobs available to women in general.”[9] With lower income, mothers are less able to invest either time or money into their children's education. Secondly, “schools with more children from single-parent families deal with less effective teaching and learning time.”[10] In the ‘Global South’, schools are few and single-parent families numerous, culminating in an even greater disruption in children’s education.[11] Finally, “children might be ashamed of the fact that their parents are no longer together.[…] These emotional problems are expected to reduce children’s concentration at school and impair their educational performance.”[12] Without quality education, children have lower social mobility, and the same issues propagate to the next generation.

However, when considering the well-being of the children of single parents, if research focuses only a lack of education, it fails to consider the influence of social policy and economic security. Some studies argue that the decreased educational advantage of single parents has little effect on their disadvantage in seeking employment, or the education of their children.[13] In the midst of such disagreement, it is not enough to consider these factors in isolation; researchers must also consider their interaction.


Power in Economics is the ability of an individual to improve their standard of living. It is more simply defined as the freedom one has to make decisions that benefit them, and the inability of (or inertia towards) external factors reducing that freedom.[14] An important indicator of economic power is purchasing power and, therefore, employment.[15]

Single parenthood is increasingly common among lower socioeconomic groups possessing fewer socioeconomic resources, including education; this is called the 'Diverging Destinies Thesis'[16] and is important when discussing their wellbeing. In several countries, high rates of single parents use employment to support themselves.[12] However, employment is less lucrative for single-parents, for many reasons. One of these is gendered inequality: single parenthood is highly skewed towards women,[2] and moreover gender inequality in employment has the harshest consequences for them. Their reduced likelihood of finding employment in the first place compounds with the gender wage gap, pay penalties for part-time work, and inconsistent work schedules. For women of colour, these issues are further compounded by racial biases in the labour market,[17] and age (since single mothers are often young). Women are also much likelier than men to exit employment entirely as a result of parenthood.[18]

Evidently, single-parent households are influenced greatly by a lack of economic power (which is itself heavily impacted by power in gender). Thus, families already short on socioeconomic resources lack the financial freedom to escape their cycle.


In Psychology, there are several types of power. Most significant in single-parent households is “covert negative power, which is based on passive-aggression and is manifested in behaviours indicating weakness, incompetence, and self-destructive tendencies that manipulate others in the interpersonal world by arousing their feelings of fear, guilt, and anger.”[19] This phenomenon involves a refusal to accept power over one's life, and can affect the mental health of family members.

This and other psychological factors are often detrimental in single-parent households. Figures show that children from single-parent families are twice as likely to suffer from mental health problems as those living with married parents.[20] The figures, from the ONS annual report on UK social trends, showed one-fifth of those living with a divorced, separated or widowed parent suffered from at least one disorder. In contrast, only 8% of boys living with married parents suffered from mental disorders. And for parents, studies have reported as high as a threefold risk of depression and substance use in single mothers compared to married mothers.[21]

Therefore, single parenthood becomes a clear risk factor for mental health problems for both children and adults, further increasing parents' psychological distress and difficulties,[22] which contribute to a vicious cycle by putting parents at a socioeconomic disadvantage.[23] Psychological factors often go unaddressed by public policy, possibly because psychology is seen as "soft" science.

Overall, power evidently has a significant role in single-parent families, both in their own mental health, and in how they are treated.


The disciplines explored above clearly show that single-parent households are disadvantaged in many ways. Parents have greater economic and psychological hardship, leading to their children having difficulties in school and mental health, and ultimately having worse outcomes. While some research has explored how these factors interact,[23] there is not enough to come to a clear answer as to how best to support these families. Public policy illustrates well which disciplines are actually given weight, and it clearly reflects that socioeconomic status and education drive single-parent social policy, with psychology rarely mentioned.[24] Moving forward, researchers (and politicians) must consider single-parent families from every angle, weighing each discipline, to truly maximize outcomes.


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