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Parents walking with children in a park illustrating the benefits of and drawbacks of divorce through family togetherness.

How Parents and Children Benefit from Fidelity to One Another

What impact does family structure have on kids? Evidence highlights the critical benefits of two-parent households.

Former Princeton professor and renowned sociologist Sara McLanahan describes reading an article in the 1980s when she was a new professor that claimed that growing up with a single parent could be harmful to children. She was “stunned” by the implication. A single mother of three, she set out on a “relentless mission” to prove the idea was wrong. “Dogged” in her pursuit of truth, she analyzed and re-analyzed the implications of single-parenthood for children. She could not deny what she found: children living with single parents did not “fare as well” as those raised by their two married parents. 

A decade later, after an extensive review of more than 40 rigorous studies designed to “tease out” the effects of family structure on children, McLanahan and her co-author concluded:

If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent ideal. Such a design, in theory, would not only ensure that children had access to the time and money of two adults, it also would provide a system of checks and balances that promoted quality parenting. The fact that both parents have a biological connection to the child would increase the likelihood that the parents would identify with the child and be willing to sacrifice for that child…

From personal experience, she knew that divorce could help children by taking them out of a destructive environment. But it was clear that the ideal context for development was a married mother and father parenting together. Resources were a large part of the story. Two parents generally means more resources to devote to the intensive developmental needs of children. Yet it was not just resources. There also seemed to be something powerful in the designmother and fatherdevoted to something larger than themselves, nurturing the children their love brought into being.

The ideal context for development was a married mother and father parenting together.

I recently sat beside a new mother. Her infant, just six weeks old, was still struggling to nurse and bottle-feed. His utter dependence struck me. He gazed directly into his mother’s face, locking his eyes on hers. In spite of seeming to have literally no real capacities, it was clear that he recognized her. She was his entire world. For a second, his mouth broke into a smile, and I watched her exhaustion give way to radiance.

Like all infants, his primary task was to search out a face—wired to seek the one whose heartbeat and smell and voice he already intimately knew, whose blood and organs and bones built his. His fetal cells will circulate in her body long after he has grown into adulthood. The bond they were primed to form is an intuitive extension of their biological connection.  

For the next year of his life, they will communicate through emotions, eye to eye, body to body. She will regulate his inner world by intuitively synchronizing herself with his inner state, then upregulating the emotion, doing what he cannot yet do for himself. In the process, their bond of emotional communication will lay the foundations for his emotional awareness, personality, self-regulation, and capacity for intimacy.

Developing this level of love and intimacy is not an easy process.

He will also connect with Dad, especially as he becomes a toddler. Their bond will look different, more playful, and physical. When Mom holds a ball in front of him, she might describe its color and shape; when Dad takes it, he is more likely to play with it, maybe even bop him on the head with it. Mom and Dad will do much of the same things—nurture, guide, teach, feed—but they will also offer distinct orientations. Dad will be more likely to encourage independence and risk taking; Mom more likely to build assurance and emotional understanding, the one he will go to for comfort. She’ll likely correct his behavior more often, but when Dad corrects, he will hold the line, enforcing boundaries and communicating authority. Dad is the one he will rough house with while he learns how to handle strong emotions and relate to others in regulated ways. But Mom is likely the one he will want to talk to about his day.

Together, they will offer him a fuller and more complete understanding of himself and the world and how he can navigate its complexity with assurance and capacity. When he calls out “Dad,” the voice that responds will assure him that needed protection, guidance, and help are close. His call for “Mom” will bring a different, also essential, form of soul-nourishing protection, help, and guidance. 

There is something irreplaceable in this complementary design, offering a wholeness to the building of a soul that is already the living, genetic evidence of two being made one. And yet, they will also fail in it. Developing this level of love and intimacy is not an easy process. 

There will be episodes of anger, rejection, impatience, and selfishness. Mothers and fathers will fail to love one another and cause their children fear and pain. Their sense of responsibility will get tangled up with using their children as evidence of their goodness as parents, blocking them from truly seeing and knowing. And children will make countless mistakes in the process of growing, bringing fear and disappointment.

It’s worth everything to seek to strengthen our family.

As they come back to face one another again and again, choosing to see and know and love rather than control, they’ll experience what this divine design is intended for—intimacy: To deeply witness and to be deeply witnessed by another. They will realize that none of them are getting out of it alive. There is no winning in this life. There is only being together in the vulnerability, enabling one another to become, doing good, and loving in the face of it.

This is some of what Sara McLanahan was picking up in her very human metrics—a divine design in this thing we call family. It’s worth everything to seek to strengthen our family so that we might all be better able to experience what it is designed to create. Nothing else can quite replace it, and God Himself assures us He will make it whole. 

About the author

Jenet Erickson

Jenet Erickson is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution and professor at Brigham Young University. She has been featured in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal among others. She has a Ph.D. in Family Social Science from the University of Minnesota.
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