Many studies have shown that children living in a single-parent family tend to do worse academically and receive less intellectual stimulation than children living with married parents. Having a grandparent in the home, however, appears to buffer some of these negative effects, according to a new Cornell University study.
"When looking at children's test scores, we find that children who live with a single mom and a grandparent fare just as well as children living with married parents," says Rachel Dunifon, assistant professor of policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell. "These findings contradict the idea that living with two married parents is the primary situation in which children can thrive."
Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Dunifon found that living with a single mother is linked to significant declines in academic achievement. In contrast, the test scores of children who live in single-mother families that also contain a grandparent do not significantly differ from children in married-couple families, she says.
In 2003 about 23 percent of all U.S. children lived with a single mother, including 16 percent of white children and 51 percent of African-American children. Of these children, 13 percent also lived with a grandparent in the household.
The role of grandparents in single-parent families can be important to policy. "For example, some welfare policies for single mothers try to encourage marriage because the common thinking is that children fare best when living with married parents," says Dunifon.
Dunifon and co-author Lori Kowaleski-Jones, assistant professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, presented their findings at the Population Association of America annual meeting, April 1, in Philadelphia.
Dunifon is launching a new study on the role of grandparents in the lives of adolescent grandchildren with a new $300,000 grant over five years from the William T. Grant Foundation Scholars Program. The study will include not only analyses of several longitudinal datasets but also in-depth interviews to assess interactions between grandparents and adolescent grandchildren.
"With longer life spans, more children living without both biological parents and more grandparents raising grandchildren, we need to better understand the role of grandparents during the vulnerable adolescence period," says Dunifon. "Grandparents can serve as an important source of potential strength for youth as they make their way through the transition of adolescence into adulthood."
In addition to studying the role of grandparents in single-mother families, Dunifon will also examine children who do not live with either parent and who are being raised by grandparents. This, too, is an important policy concern, Dunifon says.
"Some states, including New York, require by law that when children are removed from their homes, relatives must first be contacted for potential caregiving before the child goes into foster care with strangers," she said. "Also, in some states, grandparents raising grandchildren don't have access to the same kinds of support programs as foster parents. For all these reasons, it's important to do more research on how children fare when being raised by their grandparents."