The Effect of Single Mothers on Boys in Education

A recent paper published in the American Economic Journal titled The Trouble with Boys: Social Influences and the Gender Gap in Disruptive Behavior (AEJ: Applied Economics, 2013, 5(1), pp. 32-64) has not been getting the attention it deserves.

The paper was written by Marianne Bertrand and Jessica Pan, two economics professors at the University of Chicago. While this piece is a heavy read, it reports that a major cause of boys’ disruptive behavior is neglectful single-mothers. (To see the published version you need a subscription, but an earlier version of the source is available).

Growing up in a single-parent family is tough for both boys and girls. Quote Mary Parke in her paper Are Married Parents Really Better for Children?:

Children who did not live with both biological parents were roughly twice as likely to be poor, to have a birth outside of marriage, to have behavioral and psychological problems, and to not graduate from high school school. (p. 2)

Moreover, it’s not about lower income associated with single-parent households. Children need two parents, not just two adults.

Children living with two adults (i.e., with cohabiting parents or in a step-family) do not do as well as children living with married, biological parents on a number of variables (p. 6).

It should be stressed that when we are talking about single-parent households, we are often talking about single-mother households. According to the US Census Bureau (See table FG10) in the United States, there are 10 million single mother families with children under 18, as compared to 1.7 million single father families with children under 18.

Was ask what is so special about boys because boys are the ones that tend fail behind, according to Bertrand and Pan.

Let’s investigate schools and homes for more information. When taking into account the greater incidence of school disciplinary and behavioral problems among boys, one can explain a substantial share of the female advantage in college enrollment (Jacob, Brian A. 2002. “Where the Boys Aren’t: Non-cognitive Skills, Returns to School and the Gender Gap in Higher Education.” Economics of Education Review. 21(6):589–98). But else puts boys at a disadvantage? Are schools too restrictive, or does home not feel like home?

Using a multi-year survey starting in 1998, Bertrand and Pan include adequate data for evaluation given their familiarity with school policies. They also know how much time parents spend with their children, what of kind of activities parents partake in with their children, how often parents punish (e. g. spank) their kids, and finally how often kids get into trouble.

It turns out, for instance, that restrictiveness of a kindergarten environment does not matter. Differences in the families background does not matter much, either. It is not the case that boys are disproportionally likely to grow up in disadvantaged, such as single-mother or poor, households. Having a male teacher seems to matter more starting from 8th grade, but this is hard to say for sure given a lack of male teachers. But what matters most in the scope of this study is parental input from mothers and boys’ sensitivity to these inputs. Single mothers appear especially distant from their sons  (p. 52; p. 22 in the earlier version). Single mothers spend more time with daughters relative to sons compared to married mothers. For children under five, single mothers spend between 1.2 and 1.4 hours less per week with their sons than their daughters. Boys in broken families are about 13% more likely to have been spanked in a week as compared to girls.

The evidence suggests that boys’ misbehavior is caused by emotional neglect. From this we can postulate that boys need affection from both a father and a mother. Single mothers do not have as much time for their sons as married mothers. While married mothers too spend less time with their sons than with their daughters they, nonetheless, spend more time with their sons than single mothers (p. 53; p.23 in the earlier version). Boys respond with misbehavior and poor performance in education.

When you consider that many good fathers lose their children in one-sided custody hearings, we have to question how single-parenthood is in the best interests of children. Remember that as of 2012, only 16% of all single fathers were custodial.

Stay tuned, stay shocked.

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