So, at least when it comes to education, a two-parent family seems less important, or even unhelpful in some cases, in the developing world. What accounts for this surprising result?
The report suggests three possible answers to this question. First, children living with single parents in the developing world often live with and depend heavily on extended family members who can buffer against the absence of a second parent, usually a father. By contrast, children living in the developed world -- where extended families are much less salient forces in children's lives -- often do not have much access to the time, attention, and money of grandparents and other non-parental kin. For instance, children living with only one parent in India may be more likely to rely on "Daadi" and "Dada" -- grandma and grandpa -- than children raised in single-parent families in the United States.
Second, schooling effects may drown out family effects in the developing world. Even though there are clear differences in school quality within the developed world, those differences are more dramatic in the developing world. For instance, "something as basic as whether a teacher comes to class regularly" is an important factor in children's achievement in rural India, according to the report. This is a problem that rarely affects children in developed countries. Children in developed countries can depend upon a minimum level of school competency that may make their family resources more salient in determining their educational fortunes.
Third, fathers in the developed world -- especially in Europe, North America, and Oceania -- appear to take a much more hands-on approach to their children's schooling than fathers in much of the developing world. By contrast, fathers in the developing world may be less involved or, in some cases, more likely to waste family money on their own pursuits, rather than on their children's education. Research by economist Cynthia Lloyd has found, for instance, that single mothers in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to devote family money to children's schooling than are father-headed households. Thus, the educational value of two parents may depend, in part, on men's willingness to invest practically and financially in their children's schooling.
The dramatic difference between developed and developing countries in the study is ironic because, in recent years, the two-parent family has lost more ground in Europe, North America, and Oceania than it has in East Asia. For instance, just 12 percent of children in Japan live in single-parent homes, compared with 27 percent of children in the United States. Moreover, extended families in the West tend to be comparatively weak, by no means ready to step into the gap created by a nuclear family in retreat.
Thus, at least in the West, parents, and nations, committed to giving their children an educational leg up in the global economy may wish to rethink their commitment to the nuclear family. If they want the rising generation to have every educational advantage in an increasingly competitive global economy, parents and policymakers would be wise to focus not just on the quality of their children's schools, but also the quality and stability of their children's homes.