Single-Parent Families: the Tragedy or Norm


A famous beverage’s international marketing campaign said years ago “tradition is not what it used to be” and this concept seems to apply to families today. However, unlike many people may think, there are not many more monoparental families in the Western World today than there were 50 years ago.

Until last century’s second half, high mortality and immigration levels, as well as lower life expectancy generated a high number of orphans. Abandonment stats were also on the rise, boosted by poverty, low education and lack of birth control.
So, living away from mommy or daddy is not a phenomenon created in the past few decades by Western civilization. What really changed were the causes that lead to monoparental families. Divorce is the main explanation.
In 2011 Malta became the last European Union country to legalize marriage dissolution and it’s the only member with no divorce statistics available. The other 26 countries’ average doubled between 1970 and 2010, from one divorce per 1000 inhabitants to two divorces per 1000 inhabitants. Presented like this it looks meaningless, but if we notice that marriages per 1000 inhabitants in the same countries dropped from 7,9 to 4,4, we can conclude that nearly half of the marriages won’t last until death tears spouses apart.
Is it bad for children that monoparental families are increasing? Are family values at risk? Youth Time discussed the topic with Portuguese psychologist Nuno Gonçalves.

Will monoparental families lead to a radical change of family values or even to the decadence of the family as an institution?

Family is based on bonds and all over civilizations’ and cultures’ History there are diverse valid family models. Family values are a consequence of local cultural values as well as common universal values. There are exceptions of course, but despite cultural differences, human sensibility and needs are very similar. Based on this analysis and if we consider that orphanhood was very frequent in the past because of mothers dying during parturition, or because of fathers dying in a war, we can find these models less powerful than the ones society develops by itself. I believe it’s more appropriate to speak about the emergency of new family models rather than about family crisis.

Theoretically, can a child or a teenager have the same education in a monoparental family as in a traditional family?

Theoretically, yes. The question is how you build the parental image. The mother or father, regardless of being more present or more absent, need to fulfill their roles. Let’s take the example of being parents, whose jobs demand long or constant absences or let´s even take a more extreme example of deceased parents… Some of them maintain a good and functional bond with their children. Parents deprivation caused by absence of contact can also be fulfilled by another person like grandparents, uncle or aunt, affective mother or father, or the mother’s boyfriend or husband as well as the father’s girlfriend or wife. The important thing is that the affective bond maintains the adequate qualities needed for the child’s development.

But what are the main differences between monoparental families and traditional families, concerning the way children are educated?

I cannot answer that question objectively. A dysfunctional traditional family will not be the most appropriate environment to assure an appropriate education. Education means transmitting skills and building a system of values. So education can be successful in any family environment as long as the essential conditions are satisfied. Family dynamics is what matters. Not always is a monoparental family able to meet a child’s needs and not always does a traditional family meet the social parental functions that are conferred.

What is the most critical age for a child or a teenager to see their parents separate?

The separation of children from parents is more problematic than the separation of parents themselves. If a child perceives that the parents’ separation involves the loss of respect and affection, any age is problematic. Keep in mind that the management of parental conflict is a source of frequent exercise of psychological violence towards children. If a child does not feel that the parents’ separation corresponds to the deprivation of their relationship or the impoverishment of the quality of the relationship they have with them, everything may just be ok. If the parents have the ability to maintain the relationship between themselves and their children, the situation can be overcome.

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