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Single mum or single dad? The effects of parent residency arrangements on the development of primary school-aged children

By Lisbeth Pike - posted Friday, 15 September 2000

Permanent parental separation and divorce is increasingly a part of the fabric of contemporary Australian life. Over the past thirty years there has been a steady increase in divorce rates, with current figures indicating that two in every five marriages will end in divorce. It should be noted there is a large but unknown number of permanent separations that occur without going through the legal process of divorce. In short, the statistics are likely to be conservative in their estimation of the incidence of relationship breakdown (legal or de-facto).

As the incidence of parental relationship breakdown has increased, so has the number of children involved in family restructuring increased. Data published by the ABS reveals that in 1982, 10.7 per cent of all types of families were single-parent families. The latest figures available indicate that 14.7 per cent of all Australian families are single-parent families, the vast majority of which are headed by women. In 1995, 49 666 children experienced their parents’ divorce.

While the effects of parental separation or divorce on children and adolescents have been widely reported in the literature emanating from the USA, inspection of relevant Australian databases reveals considerably smaller numbers of published studies reporting the effects of parental separation and divorce overall, and an even smaller subset of studies focussing on Australian primary school-aged children. Examination of the Australian literature reveals the same level of claim and counterclaim concerning child outcomes as a consequence of parental separation and divorce. Some authors promote the idea that maladjustment, particularly in later life, is virtually inevitable while others argue the contrary. The evidence is at best mixed and often compromised by methodological shortcomings.


Further, common to both US and Australian published research findings, the majority of research relies on child adjustment data that is drawn largely from samples of children (girls and boys) primarily resident with their mothers. One obvious explanation for this is related to the fact that in most Western cultures there has been a long legal tradition of custody or residency decisions being made in favour of mothers. The rationale behind this has that it is in the best interest of (young) children to be raised by their mothers.

Notwithstanding the above, there has been a long-held belief generated from the American separation, divorce and child outcomes literature that children are most advantaged by being raised by a parent of the same sex. The origins of this belief trace back to the Texas Custody Research Project, which was conducted in the USA in the late seventies and early eighties.

The Texas Custody Research Project was one of the first to look at custody outcomes by sex of parent and is identified as the beginning of what has sometimes been called the same-gender tradition or the same-gender hypothesis, that is, that boys are advantaged when growing up with their fathers and girls are advantaged when growing up with their mothers. This was described as a "major and robust finding" from the study and "substantiated by the results of (six relatively independent) data sources".

American research examining the claims of the same-gender tradition has continued into the 1990s with the most recent works producing contradictory findings to most of the earlier studies. Commenting on the earlier same-gender tradition or same-gender hypothesis research studies, contemporary researchers are critical of the previous research, noting that while there is some slim evidence for the same-gender advantage for adolescent children, there is much less support for this advantage operating with younger children.

In reviewing the contemporary research in this area, Clarke-Stewart and Hayward note that the study that has been most frequently used to support the same-gender hypothesis, is the Texas Custody Research Project. "It is this study from which the implication has been drawn most strongly that there is an advantage of having a custodial parent of the same gender". Yet, as Clarke-Stewart and Hayward note, the Texas Custody Research Project "did not report differences between boys in father custody and boys in mother custody or between girls in father custody and girls in mother custody", which they describe as "the real test of the same-gender hypothesis".

In summary, there is a dearth of data on the effects of parental separation and divorce on primary school-aged children in contemporary Australian families, and a need for a greater understanding of the effects of the range of post-separation or divorce family forms on children’s development. The necessity to re-examine this area is made all the more urgent not only by the recent commentaries on the methodological shortcomings evident in previous empirical research but also by the increased incidence of fathers seeking residency of their children in Australia.


The study described in this paper was an attempt to address this need and presents data collected on children in the late 'nineties in Western Australia. The children were all attending primary schools and were living with single parents who had been separated or divorced for a minimum of twelve months. These single parents had sole residency with their children.

Description of the study

There were a total of 272 participants in the study comprised of 136 single-parent children (72 girls and 64 boys) and 136 two-parent children matched for age, sex, school year and educational cohort. Participants were drawn from 35 state and 10 private schools.

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This is an edited extract of a paper presented to the 7th Annual Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, Sydney, July 2000.

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About the Author

Dr Lisbeth Pike is Head of the School of Psychology at Edith Cowan University.

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