Children 'better off' with single mothers in poor nations, report suggests

Most African single-mother homes miss not the father as such, but his connections and the fruits of nepotism and patronage that they bring.

There has been much hand-wringing about the state of African familes today.

Single parenthood—motherhood, mostly—has been on the rise around the continent, and conservatives are up in arms. They see this as a disastrous “breakdown” of the family that is leading to high levels of delinquency, crime and social instability. But perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that mothers are raising children on their own in Africa.

Although numerous studies in middle- and high-income countries in other parts of the world have shown that children living in two-parent families are more likely to complete school and have better grades than children from single-parent families, the connection between a child’s living arrangements and educational outcomes is much less robust in Africa, according to the World Family Map 2013 report.

 In many low-income countries, family structure simply may not matter as much for children’s education, given the many obstacles to good educational outcomes that affect children in all types of families. Parents may not be able to afford schooling for their children; schools may be distant and poorly equipped; teachers may be ill-trained; parents and their children may suffer from poor health and nutrition; and seasonal labour demands may take priority. If you are living in a poor country, all children will be affected by a broken education system and harsh living conditions, whether parents are married or not.

But even more counter-intuitively, the report indicates that living with one parent isn’t necessarily a negative experience, and children may actually benefit from living with a single mother, compared to having both parents. This is because mothers who have more decision-making power and more control over resources in the family—as single mothers typically do—have more freedom to invest in their children’s educational outcomes.

Invest more of same resources
This is especially likely in many low-income countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, where previous research suggests that given the same resources, mothers invest more time, money and emotional support in their children’s education than fathers do. The finding of an advantage of living with one parent in several of the low-income countries studied is supported by research in Asia, where children’s reading performance was found to be higher among children in single-parent families than in two-parent families in Indonesia and Thailand, but not in the three wealthier countries: Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea. In middle and high-income countries, where the structural problems of the education system are fixed and poverty levels are generally low, children’s educational and social outcomes are much more sensitive to the home environment.

It’s intriguing that mothers should be more invested in their children’s education than fathers, given that fathers are typically stereotyped as more demanding and no-nonsense, and mothers soft and coddling. But there could be a genetic explanation. Most of the genes that relate with intelligence and cognitive skills are passed down to the child from the mother, linked to her X chromosome, says this study

The Y chromosome in men codes for more than a hundred genes, none of which are associated with thinking, planning, or figuring things out—a delicious irony to the keepers of patriarchal societies. Because boys have just one X chromosome, they especially owe their brains to their mothers, while girls, with two X chromosomes, intelligence is more 50-50 from the father and mother. So genetics dictates that if a man wants smart sons, the best bet is to marry a smart woman (bad news for those men marrying beautiful but intellectually vacuous women a.k.a. bimbos). 

It explains why there are more male geniuses, having inherited one particularly outstanding X chromosome from their mother, but it also explains why there are more boys with autism and dyslexia—since they have just one X chromosome, any glitch on the gene will be expressed, unlike in girls where the second X chromosome can “mask” the effects of a problematic gene.

Although only five African countries were included in the World Family Map survey—Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa—together these five make up 40% of Africa’s population. Among the five, Egyptian and Nigerian children are most likely to live with both parents, at 90% and 69% respectively, reflecting prevailing conservative attitudes in those societies.

Normalised female-head households
However, South African children are by far the least likely to be living with both father and mother—just 36% of South African children live with both parents, and one in five lives with neither parent, a reflection of both the ravages of HIV/ Aids, as well as apartheid-era labour laws that made fathers work far from home leaving their families behind, which normalised female-headed households across South Africa. Ethiopia and Kenya families fall in the middle.

But attitudes towards single parenting lag behind the reality of modern Africa. In most of the world, the majority of adults believe that a child “needs a home with both a mother and a father to grow up happily,” with sentiments particularly strong in Egypt (99%) and South Africa (91%).  Less than three in ten South Africans are okay with women having children voluntarily outside marriage and without a stable relationship with a man, despite far less than half of South African children currently living with both parents.

So, if children from single-parent homes can do just as well as others in school, what do they actually miss out on? It appears that in Africa, the single-biggest drawback to having one parent is the loss of social connections that the other parent could offer. Because most fathers work outside the home, they typically have many relationships forged in the workplace that could be called upon when a son or daughter needs an internship or job interview, i.e. among some of the most social capital  men bring to families is nepotism and patronage.

In Africa, where social networks are strong, a simple name-drop could be all a young person needs to gain an advantage, and “knowing someone” is an invaluable lubricant to speed things along in bureaucratic government and patronage-riddled systems where your ethnic group can help you rise or bring you down. Many times, an outright bribe needn’t even be exchanged; someone could just help because they know your father or uncle.

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