Friday, December 30, 2011

Boys, Education and Single Parenthood

Talk about an article designed to attract my attention.

An article published yesterday in The Guardian, a British newspaper, carries this provocative headline and subtitle: "Girls 'more resilent' than boys at school: Girls from single-parent families outperform boys in class because they are less affected by parental input, study shows."

As a divorced parent of four boys, I found the article a somewhat depressing retread of a oft-expressed theory: Boys don't do well in single parent homes.

The article states that the so-called "gender gap" in education -- the tendency for boys to underperform in school, as compared to girls -- may be because boys from single parent homes are more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems that carry over into the school setting, while girls don't seem disturbed by the lack of a two-parent household.

According to the article, "Boys raised outside a traditional two-parent family were more likely to display behavioural and self-control problems in class and were suspended more often...By the time the children were 10 or 11 the "gender gap" between boys and girls displaying behaviour problems in school was twice as big for those brought up by single mothers as those from traditional families."

When the boys' dad and I first separated, I quite naturally fretted about the impact of our separation on the boys. (I still do!) Like all modern, 21st century parents, I turned to Google for answers. What I found did not reassure me. Google told me that boys are more likely than girls to become depressed and angry after their parents' divorce. That they're more likely to have academic and behavioral problems, more likely to assume blame and increasingly likely to become distanced from their mother.

Now another study tells me that boys in single parents families are all-but-destined for academic failure??

Well, I refuse to believe it. I refuse to believe that our divorce will doom our boys to a less-than life. I know that our divorce affected them -- and affected them greatly -- but I will not let the divorce be an excuse for academic failure, behavorial problems or relationship issues. I fully, completely, 100% believe that children of divorced and single parents can grow up to become functioning, well-adjusted human beings. And while my ex and I are not perfect, I believe that we're doing some things to mitigate the effect of our divorce.

One: We are both still actively involved in our boys' lives. The Guardian newspaper article doesn't mention if the boys in the study had involved dads; it merely says "single parent families." As you and I both know, single parent families are frequently headed by women. Moms can raise some fabulous sons, but I think it behooves the moms, dads, sons and society to have some continued strong male involvement in boys' lives. Was the problem really that the boys were raised in single parent families, or that they had no strong male role models?

Two: When we see a behavioral problem, we address it. Please don't take this to mean that the boys' dad and I are model co-parents. We're not. Most of the time, we barely talk, and our values and beliefs regarding parenting differ. But...we both want our boys to be functioning members of society. We both want our boys to function well in and out of the classroom. And you can bet that if either one of us hears that our sons are acting up in (or outside of school), we will address the issue. Our boys have had counseling; that remains an option, should it be needed again in the future. I also work with the boys daily on basic problem solving, anger management and interpersonal relations.

Three: We support the boys' interests and educational pursuits. My house is filled with books. The boys' dad loves to watch educational documentary style shows (think "Ice Road Truckers" and "American Pickers") with the boys. We also make it a point to weave the boys' natural interests into our days and the boys' education. Boy #1 is an avid fisherman; I showed him how to use the library website to access every fishing book within our interlibrary loan system, and his dad helped him get and outfit a simple boat and takes him fishing. #2 loves sports: He plays football, basketball and baseball, and has lots of fiction and non-fiction books about sports. #3 is gettting into robotics, electronics and RC cars. Guess what he got for Christmas? I gotta think that all of that educational support will make a difference for the boys in the long run.

What do you think? Do you think that life in a single parent household dooms boys to a life of educational failure? Or do you think that parenting is more important than household or family structure?


  1. Divorce is devastating to children. I'm a child of divorce, and it had a profound affect on my life. However, it simply cannot be a reason to doom children's lives. Why? Because it happens a lot. And look at all the "less than ideal" families that exist today! If we doom children because of that, then we're not living in the present. Now I'm married and I have two boys, and I hope we can continue to offer them a stable homelife, but if something should happen, then I would try to continue doing the same things I'm doing now: communicating, following their interests, listening to my boys, getting outside help if needed. My parents weren't very good at that stuff, and I think that is what hurt me the most. Fortunately, I was finally able to learn from my parents mistakes, and I hope my children can benefit from that.

    And I think it should be noted that girls simply react differently to divorce than boys. In my twenties I saw a counselor for a brief time and talked about this. She recommended that I read Second Chances by Judith S. Wallerstein, and it really lit a lightbulb for me. I believe she did the first long-term study on divorce. (Just note I read this many years ago, so I'm paraphrasing here to the best of my memory.) She found that boys usually acted out while the divorce was happening. Hence, they would have trouble in school and behavioral problems at a young age. In some ways this was good because they were able to "get it out" at an early age. Girls, however, seemed unaffected by the divorce and continued to do well in school. But the girls would kind of "crash" (my expression) in later in life, usually in their twenties when they were of age to begin serious relationships of their own. This was an ah-ha moment for me because I experienced this. The anger I felt toward my parents did not surface until that age, and I had to deal with it then.

    Also, for what it's worth, I just pulled down my copy of Second Chances, opened it, and found this quote which I had put a star next to years ago: "Our study clearly finds that the overall psychological adjustment of boys is strongly linked to father-son relationships, whether or not the mother has remarried. The frequency of visits is not the important thing. Rather, the relationship and the kind of person the father is make the difference."

    As you can see, I highly recommend this book for anyone dealing with divorce. It helped me very much as did her other book, The Good Marriage. (Something this child of divorce needed to know because she doesn't have a good role model.)

    You and your ex-husband are doing the right things. We all have obstacles we have to surmount in this life. For your boys, it happened early, but with support, they'll find their way, and the hurt may even bring deeper meaning and wisdom to their lives.

  2. I'm putting Second Chances on my to-read list. Thanks for recommendation!

    Thanks too for your thoughtful, personal response, especially our last sentence. Your words brought me much comfort.

  3. I agreed with you that boys from single parent homes are more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems then girls from same background.