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California: Look Ma, No Man! Single Mothers Raising Sons
(provided by Kristina Diener, Psy.D.)

The number of single mother households increased 25 percent between 1990 and 2000, to more than 7.5 million. Is this a warning or a welcome?

No muss, no fuss, no misunderstandings, right? In today's world of single parenting, few topics seem to stir up a cauldron of controversy than the subject of Single Mothers Raising Sons. From psychologists to educators to custody evaluators, is there an actual consensus on who does a better job? Although many a successful son has been raised by his single mother (think back to those days when mom took care of the children after dad went to war or never returned), this is an entire new advent of Successful Single Mothers: lesbians are doing it, grandmothers are doing it, so why all the fuss?

Joann Hetzinger describes the latest in what she calls the Battle of the Blame. Fighting to get her 16 year old son out of bed and off to school, Joann complains of endless power struggles and fights to the emotional finish. "I can't take it anymore. His father is never around and when he makes a rare appearance, it's to harass us." Joann says Tate hasn't seen his dad in months – "and doesn't miss him."

Terry Cartwright tells a similar tale, but with a surprising twist. After "rescuing" her son from his errant father, Terry says it's all she can do to send him back and "hope for the best. I just cannot control him," she says.

Methods vs Madness

Apparently the madness is a matter of opinion: Is it possible for a single mother to raise a successful son? Certainly it's been done: Bill Cosby, Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton are success stories. But in a world full of stress and insecurities, so many solo moms can't help but wonder if they're "doing it right."

If the mere notion that a single mother might possibly do less than a stellar job of raising a successful son, just ask Linda S. Budd PhD, LP, LMFT, and the author of Living with the Active Alert Child. According to Dr. Budd, " The research would indicate the difficulty of a single woman raising a son alone lies in the ‘all or nothing' thinking of adolescent males. They need other male role models with whom they are close (i.e. grandfathers, uncles, mentors or teachers). This exposure helps hem not go to extremes with their ideal view of "macho." Without any realistic masculine role models they may try to emulate what the media portrays as masculine without realizing a high-energy, testosterone-driven personality is merely an unsustainable myth. There are many ways to help them gain a more balanced perspective on life but the first involves real role models."

In terms of such role models, Professor Eleanor Maccoby (1992) researched deviance (substance abuse, getting into trouble at school, and various kinds of antisocial activity) in post-divorce families and found that it was a bigger problem in father-custody homes than in dual-custody or mother-custody homes because, the research suggests...

The fact that fathers in sole residence were less likely than other residential parents to have intimate and open relationships with these male adolescents in their care may have made it more difficult for these fathers to keep track of their adolescents.

Further, states the professor, it is this intimacy that provides the solid ground on which a young male can build the foundations of his independence. He can get that intimacy from men also, but in this world it is the mother who is most likely to provide it. Mothers who are strong enough to structure the boundaries that an adolescent requires, intimate enough to sense when something is going wrong, and wise enough to know when to stand back can be both mothers and fathers to their sons if need be, but it is a lot to ask and it's amazing that so many mothers manage it.

Social scientists have confused family structure with economic factors that can influence behavior and performance. According to researchers who analyze the data of boys having problems note that a large percentage come from single-mother homes and assume that mothers' single status has caused their boys demise, but they fail to understand the economic situation of the family. A study by researchers at Cornell University found that single mothering did not automatically equate disaster, but that how much schooling the mother received and her abilities were the biggest influence on her children's school performance—not the fact that the boys were fatherless. Additionally, it had been assumed that boys from divorced families had more problems than children of two-parent, mom-and-dad families, but that deduction was mercifully debunked when a 2000 study by the New York University Child Study Center discovered that these same boys had been demonstrating behavioral problems even prior to the divorce. When the researchers controlled for earlier behavior problems, the differences between boys from intact families and from divorced families were significantly reduced, leading these researchers to conclude that to blame the boys' difficulties after the divorce on the actual divorce or separation limited the scope of understanding and the predicaments that preceded the split may have been a contributing factor to any problems observed in the boys after the divorce.


Elementary and middle school boys will transition into the role of acceptance much earlier than teen boys. Research indicates that 3 in 10 boys now live with a single mother, but that the younger children have an easier time adapting. Since the main developmental task of the teenage years is developing a sense of identity, many teens are drawn to adult role models and those adult role models don't necessarily have to be a parent of the same sex. Teachers, coaches, neighbors, friends, and especially a positive mentor can be an effective role model. "Single parenting doesn't have to mean solo parenting," continues Dr. Budd. "One of the most important things a single mother of a teenage son can do is look after her own mental health, as too many single moms put their own needs on hold. As mothers, we are used to giving and taking care of our children, and especially as single mothers, we feel guilty when we give to ourselves what we believe is rightfully for our children. Paradoxically, giving to ourselves liberates children from the erroneous belief that they need to care for us." Another study by Professor Eleanor Maccoby cited the difference in adjustment for children living in different family arrangements after divorce found that a low level of hostility between separated parents, stability, and closeness to the resident parent were what mattered most. Yet another study by Richard Kinsey in Scotland also underlines the importance of closeness. According to his study, there was 25 percent less criminal behavior in homes where children were supervised after school -- a finding that cuts right across class and neighborhoods.

Statistics indicate that when their mothers go out to full-time work, boys tend to feel neglected, whereas girls appear to feel more secure. Compiling the work dilemma is the questions they will inevitably ask about their absent fathers, and ask they will.

Here's a list of advice for What Not To Do WHEN YOUR SON ASKS QUESTIONS:


This one should be obvious, but you wouldn't believe how many mothers evade, avoid, even omit pertinent aspects of the truth about the real reason their father isn't around, be it from a one night stand to a sperm donor. Answer questions about your child's father as honestly as you can, remembering age appropriate components. Is he in prison? A four year old may not understand this, whereas an 11 year old probably can.


Although admittedly a protracted and arduous process, don't be afraid to let the courts intervene. If you know where to find him and have the means, take him to court. If you know where to find him and don't have the means, go to a Legal Aid Clinic and ask for help and references. By allowing yourself to be pushed around, you are setting a negative example.


It doesn't matter how juvenile his dad is. Be a class act and role model for your son.


Involve your son in activities such as sports, scouting and functions that will expose him to positive males, such as Big Brothers of America.

Who Does It Better?

The jury is still out on that one, but recent research has confirmed that:

* Female-headed households may be an even better environment for boys than households with men.

* Sons from these families are growing up emotionally stronger, more Empathetic, and more well-rounded than boys from "traditional" mother-father families.

* 63% of single moms polled stated they believed they were better able to raise "a well-adjusted son" without a live in dad.

* 19% claimed they were having a rough time of it, and

* 18% admitted to "throwing in the towel" and sending them back to dad – if there was one around.

* But: 69% of Successful Sons of Single Mothers asserted they were better off raised by their mom and "couldn't imagine it any other way."

Resources: Raising Sons Without Fathers: A Woman's Guide to Parenting Strong,
Successful Boys (Hardcover)
by Leif G. Terdal, Patricia Kennedy
Very informative and useful.

Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next
Generation of Exceptional Men by Linden Gross, Peggy F. Drexler, Ph.D.

Temperament Tools: Working with Your Child's Inborn Traits.
Helen Neville, BS, RN
Parenting Press.

Living with the Active Alert Child
3rd Edition
Linda S. Budd, PhD
Parenting Press, Seattle, 2003.

Making Lemonade: The Single Parents Network
Jodi Seidler

Information provided by:
Kristina Diener, Psy.D.

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