Parentlessness is a great problem of both domestic and global concern. Parents ideally are the father and mother of a child who have and exercise legal and social responsibility for children – to support, educate, love, nurture, and rear them as members of their family. Yet parentless or partial parentlessness is a persistent scourge of America and other affluent nations.
The most needy and vulnerable parentless children are orphans who have lost both mother and father. Orphans are often the left-behind victims of war, crime, famine, or disease that have killed one or both of their parents. Children growing up with only one parent are a second category of partially parentless children. While their vulnerability is generally less severe than that of children who have no living parent, children raised by just one parent are generally at significant disadvantage in terms of economic, educational, and social opportunity and physical well-being compared to children with both parents present.
There are other causes of partial or total parentlessness including legal and social barriers that separate one or both parents from the child, and individual adult choices by which parents become unable or unwilling to provide consistently for the needs of their child, or when they act to exclude the other parent from parenting. Social-choice parentlessness is a growing phenomenon in many affluent countries – including (especially) the United States.
The scope of global parentlessness today is staggering. While the exact number of parentless children today is not known, UNICEF has estimated that about 100 million street children exist in the world today. The number of street children is predicted to grow as poverty in the Third World becomes increasingly urbanized.
The plight of parentless children in poor countries is extreme. Many parentless children are unable to survive – they die, and often not tidily, not antiseptically, not with dignity, but horribly of starvation, with bloated bellies, listless, bony bodies, and huge pain-drenched eyes, with cries of hunger and fear. Their suffering and death should stun and shame us.
Disease and starvation are not the only mortal threats that parentless children face. Parentless children are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and death.
Parentlessness is not a just a problem of third-world countries. While disease, famine, poverty, and war are not the major causes of parentlessness in affluent western countries as they are in less-developed nations, there are parentless and partially-parentless children in even the most affluent nations. Ironically, parentlessness in the United States of America is persistent if not growing, despite the almost unparalleled affluence, health, education, economic and political advantages and resources. Social practices and adult lifestyle preferences in the United States have spawned millions of children who are totally and partially parentless.
Partial parentlessness may result from (1) birth out of wedlock, (2) divorce or separation of the parents, (3) other one-parent or one-gender childrearing arrangements. These “social choice” causes of partial parentlessness account for a substantial amount of parentlessness in America. Approximately forty percent (40%) of all children born in the United States today are born out of wedlock. Additionally, approximately one million American children experience parental divorce each year in the United States. The reproduction of children for same-sex couples, guaranteeing that the child or children will grow up estranged from their biological parents and in a one-gender household, also is a growing source of parentlessness for children.
The social importance of parenthood requires the internal recognition or external imposition of some limitations upon the absolute autonomy of adults who wish to be parents. Responsible public policy must define and enforce limits on adult lifestyle preferences when they jeopardize the best interests of children. It is in the best interests of children and society for children to be raised by a mother and father who are committed to each other and to the child.
Marriage is the simplest, most effective, and most available remedy to most parentlessness. The marriage commitment of parents to each other strengthens their commitment to their child or children, and also enhances their separate and combined capacity to provide well for the children. It is not just the simplistic “addition” that two adults can provide more resources and care for a child than one, but it is the “multiplication” by which the security of the marital commitment of spouses to each other and to society enhances the abilities and incentive of both to parent well, and the “exponentially” increased efficiency of the natural complementarity of man and woman in performing the myriad of parenting functions.
Parental marriage gives children unique and important life opportunities and advantages.
“[K]ids raised in married-parent households are much less likely to grow up in poverty, more likely to do better in school, and more likely to move up the economic ladder even if they start out poor. ‘There’s no argument about what’s best for kids,’ says the economic and social policy expert Ron Haskins, of the Brookings Institution. ‘It’s to be reared in a stable household by married parents.’”
So investments in marriage are really investments in children, and in the future. Those are wise and essential investments, indeed.
Lynn D. Wardle is the Bruce C. Hafen Professor of Law at Brigham Young University. He is author or editor of numerous books and law review articles mostly about family, biomedical ethics and conflict of laws policy issues. His publications present only his personal (not institutional) views.