The task of raising healthy children begins with an understanding of our role as parents. And while you don’t have to be a perfect parent to raise highly healthy children, you are absolutely essential in your child’s life simply because you are your child’s parent. You are the foundation on which your child builds his or her health. And parenting isn’t just what we do; it is who we are committed to be. This is true not just for one parent, but for both parents. Parenting is a full-time job for two. It must be “Job One” for both the mom and dad.
The most highly healthy children tend to come from homes with a married mom and dad who love each other and are willing to sacrifice for the sake of the special role they have in raising children. A number of researchers have found that a good marriage and a close family improve the well-being of a husband and wife and seem to inoculate children against despair and many other poor mental and physical health outcomes. For example, sociologist Glen Elder found that boys and girls born during the 1920s were happier during the Great Depression if their parents had a strong marriage. Teens who grew up in strong families during hard times remained, in general, very happy as adults. Elder concluded that the strong parental relationships were “a source of resilience for kids.” More recent research confirms that a good marriage helps protect children’s mental health during economic hardship. When such a home life is not possible, however, all is not lost. Single parents with the desire and discipline to do so can take positive steps to counteract the obstacles they face and maximize their children’s health.
“Parental power is key,” according to Joseph A. Califano, former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. “When there are two parents in the home–and even when one is physically absent–both mom and dad need to be engaged in their child’s life. Parents have enormous power over a child’s well-being but too many fail to appreciate and use this power.”
A good marriage is also a significant factor in preventing drug abuse–a major health threat to children. A survey of two thousand teens and one thousand parents by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) showed that the safest teens “are those living in two-parent homes who have a positive relationship with both parents, go to both parents equally when they have important decisions to make, have discussed illegal drugs with both parents and report their mom and dad are equally demanding of the teen in terms of grades, homework and personal behavior.”
No one has a perfect marriage, and some marriages are very unhappy and difficult. So how do you know if it’s healthier for your children if you stick it out and try to repair a difficult marriage or if you bail out? Researchers discovered in a recent large-scale, long-term study that it was only the children in extremely high-conflict homes who benefited when divorce removed conflict from the home. In lower-conflict marriages that ended in divorce–and the study found that perhaps as many as two-thirds of the divorces were of this type–the health of the children nearly always became much worse following divorce. Based on this and other studies, except in the minority of high-conflict marriages, it is almost always better for the children’s health if their parents stay together and work out their problems than if they divorce. Other long-term research suggests that staying in a marriage is generally better for parents as well.
When it comes to raising healthy children, there simply is not substitute for the parental team.