SALT LAKE CITY — As the number of single-parent households in the U.S. continues to rise, so does another cultural marker: the number of American children being raised primarily by their fathers.
Households headed by single dads now account for more than 16 percent of single-parent homes, according to a new report from the Census Bureau. That's up from 12 percent a decade ago.
Although the majority of American children live with two parents or a single mother, the steady rise in single-father households reflects a culture in which gender roles are changing and courts have become more willing to award custody to fathers. Divorcing dads are also more likely to aggressively seek custody than in years past, with the help of law firms that specialize in fathers' rights.
They are helped by a small body of research that shows that single mothers and fathers are equally adept at parenting. Their children fare worse when compared to children raised in two-parent homes, but the differences are slight between children raised by either their mother or father, said Mikaela Dufur, a sociology professor at Brigham Young University and the author of several studies on children raised by single parents.
“We hear about these gender roles, but when the rubber hits the road, when these parents are left on their own to do the parenting, they just do it,” Dufur said.
A changing social landscape
The new data come from the Census Bureau’s 2017 report on families and living arrangements. Released Nov. 16, the report says that nearly 20 million children, or about 27 percent of American children 17 and younger, live with one parent. That percentage is higher than in 2007, when 25.8 percent of children lived with one parent, but lower than 2012, when 28.3 percent did.
The number of single-father households, however, grew in each of those years.
In 2017, 83.9 percent of children living with one parent live with their mothers. In 2012, 86 percent did, and in 2007, 87.5 percent did, the Census Bureau said.
The numbers reflect a changing social landscape in which more mothers work outside the home and fathers have become more willing to be active participants in their children’s lives, said Scott Trout, CEO and managing partner of Cordell & Cordell, a law firm based in St. Louis that specializes in fathers’ rights and has offices in 34 states, including Utah.
“As fast as technology has changed, gender roles and parenting roles have changed,” Trout said.
Early in his career, Trout said men had no expectation of getting custody when they went before a judge.
“I remember the very first case I tried, I thought to myself, there was no chance, because of the stereotypes from the bench, the roles they expected guys to play. It was almost laughable from the bench to say I want primary custody,” he said.
As more women have become the family breadwinner, those stereotypes are fading, although there are still pockets of prejudice against fathers across the country, Trout said. He said there is no specific percentage of custody that fathers’-rights advocates want, only that the courts give equal opportunity to divorcing mothers and fathers when they come before a judge.
“All courts, in our perspective, should start from a 50-50 perspective, meaning that they’re equal parents, absent some fact otherwise, and that’s where we should start,” he said.
“It’s not about being pro-dad and anti-mom. It’s just the opposite for us at Cordell & Cordell. We’re pro-family, and we know that studies out there say that when two parents are maximally involved, the children’s lives are far better.”
Slight differences, similar outcomes
Of course not all parents become single parents because of divorce, as census data show. Nearly half of mothers who head single-parent households have never been married, according to the new report. Conversely, the most common marital status of the father is divorced.
Others live in single-parent homes after one parent has died. That’s what happened to Dufur of BYU, whose mother died when she was 11. Although her father eventually remarried, he was a single parent for four years, which is one reason Dufur became interested in this line of research.
Among other topics, she has studied kindergarten readiness among children in single-father and single-mother households, and sexuality knowledge and behavior among those raised by single mothers or fathers.
There are pronounced differences in parenting behaviors of single moms and single dads. For example, single dads are more likely to play games and sports with their young children, while single mothers are more likely to sing to them. And single fathers tend to be less confident about their parenting than single mothers do, Dufur said.
But when it came to kindergarten readiness, the children of both single moms and dads fared about the same. “So, even if the single fathers were a little less confident, whatever they were actually doing in the parenting was creating outcomes just the same. They were both investing in their children, in slightly different ways.”
In another study published this month in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, Dufur and her co-authors looked at a range of topics related to sexuality in teens raised in single-parent homes. They found that, regardless of the gender of the child or parent, the children fared equally when it came to whether they were having sex, whether they used and had knowledge of birth control, and whether they had or knew about sexually transmitted infections.
The results were surprising, Dufur said, because while “it’s easy to assume kindergarten-age kids need to be fed and clothed — well, fathers can do that and mothers can do that.” But when it comes to trickier issues of parenting, such as talking to children about sex, the researchers thought they’d see differences between children parented mainly by men or women, but none emerged. This was a departure from previous studies conducted by other researchers who found more risky sexual behavior among boys raised by single mothers.
Dufur noted that her research compares children in single-mother households to children in single-father households.
“On average, kids of both single-mother and single-father families don’t do as well as kids in two-parent families,” she said.