Stacey Snowdon

Advocates for Children
College Park Scholars
University of Maryland at College Park

The family has been an essential institution throughout the centuries, evolving from humans' co-dependent tendencies and need for nurturing relationships. Although in different times and cultures, the structure and meaning of family has varied, it's importance to humanity is unquestionable. It lays the foundation for an individuals future, having the power to influence either positively or negatively. Essential to human development and relationships, family can provide a loving and nurturing environment. However, when reared in an abusive or neglectful household, the negative effect on the individual's self-esteem and method of relating to others, obviously manifests itself. Thus, the family is a strong determining factor in the outcome of an individual's success and happiness in life. Traditionally, the family in the American culture has consisted of two parents. In the 1950's divorce was a rarity. Those who were divorced were outcasts of society. During the 1970's, divorce became more acceptable. By the 1980's, divorce was commonplace. Thus, the idea of the traditional family has been dramatically altered. In the nineties, at least half of all marriages end in divorce. Families consist of step-parents, step-siblings, and single parents. There is much debate about the effects of this break-down of the traditional family on the children. Although all agree that divorce effects children, there is controversy whether this effect is positive or negative.

Children undebatably need a family structure to develop into mature and productive adults. However, there is much debate as to what equals a complete family. Some define a complete family as that which "consists of a father, mother and their children living in a state of greater geographical, economic and social independence from other relatives and kin" (Ferri 12). Under this definition, a single-parent home would not be categorized as a true family. Not only is there the absence of one parent, but also members are often geographically separated from their primary family and because of this detachment are limited in their social interactions. Furthermore, single-parent families have trouble providing financial independence for themselves. Studies show that "[k]ids in single-parent families have less than one-third the median per capita income of kids from two-parent families, and half of them fall below the poverty line in any given year, compared with 10% of their counterparts in intact families" (Magnet 43). However, many challenge this definition of the traditional family, claiming that a family is made up of people who love and emotionally support each other. Those who defend this definition, argue that it is the affection and feelings of the people and not the structure of the family that is significant. Since "[m]any single-parent families work very well, lovingly nurturing children fully capable of happiness an success" (Magnet 43), these one parent households undoubtedly qualify as a family while a household headed by two indifferent and uncaring parents does not necessarily form a family. Ultimately, since both sides have valid points, the disputers cannot resolve these two conflicting ideas of family.

There is further debate on the action of divorce itself. The advocates of divorce claim that happy parents equal happy children. Their argument is that children are perceptive and sense the tension in their parents marriage. This turmoil in turn makes the children unhappy. They further argue that happy parents are more patient and have more time for their children. Others assert that "[t]hese new beliefs about what happiness [is], coupled with the belief that children's happiness [is] a function of their parents' happiness or unhappiness, set the stage for three decades of family disintegration" (Magnet 45). People with this opinion claim that parents too often use the happiness of their children as an excuse to justify their own selfish choice. This popular rationalization has led to the collapse of the nuclear family. Moreover, all the tension that is supposedly so harmful to the child during this unhappy marriage does not necessarily disappear after the divorce, but rather there is "continued conflict after the separation, and parents [are] less available to the children for emotional support" (Hodges 11). Thus, there are many who believe that the parents should stay together for the well-being of the children, adamantly arguing that children are important, that they don't grow up well unless we bring them up, that our needs can't shoulder theirs aside, that commitments and responsibilities to others have to take precedence over personal gratification, [and] that nothing is more gratifying than to see children flourish. (Magnet 47) Thus, they label divorce as selfish and claim that a good parent should never place the needs of themselves before the needs of their child. Many people see marriage and parenthood as a huge commitment with sacrifices and "[f]or everyone to get along, people sometimes subordinate their personal needs to the workings of a family group. . .the parents could appear selfish in their refusal to do so for the sake of the family" (Children and Divorce 11). From this point of view, divorce is wrong under the premise of neglect and disregard for the child. No final agreement can be reached in determining the righteousness of divorce.

Ultimately, the larger argument is the effects of the breakdown of family on the children. Some studies show that "[c]ontrary to the longstanding recieved opinion that children recover quickly from divorce and flourish in families of almost any shape, these changes have harrowed and damaged kids" (Magnet 43). According to these sources, children of divorced families have emotional, behavioral, and learning problems, and that they are more likely to turn to crime and to drop out of school. They further state that these kids are more likely to get a divorce themselves (Magnet 44). Other experiments predict a different result. These sources say, "viewing the decline of the nuclear family as the cause of child pathology may be erroneous. . .It is possible even probable that many children of divorce. . .obtain strengths and maturity associated with their experiences" (Hutchinson and Johnson 137). In one experiment, children between the ages of eleven and fourteen from divorced and intact families were asked to pick fifteen adjectives that describe themselves from a list of positive and negative words. The results were that no signifigance difference was found in the self-perception of the kids of divorced and married parents (Hutchinson and Johnson 129). However, some people believe that the effects of divorce on children are neither always positive or negative but depends on the individual situation. One study showed a relation between how the child percieves the divorce and the childs behavior. Kids with a negative perception of the divorce showed larger incidents of behavior and self-esteem problems. On the other hand, children with positve allusions demonstrated less anger and agression (Nock and Willetts-Bloom 3). Thus, there are no absolute answers as to the effects of divorce on children.

The issue of divorce and family is presently a very controversial topic. The parties and opinions involved are broad and its effects very widespread. Even those not divorced or parents themselves are effected in some way by this issue. The indisputable fact is that children are the future. Therefore, all those debating divorce's effects on children have one common goal. All work to secure a happy and succesful future for the children.


Ferri, Elsa. Growing Up in a One-Parent Family. New York: NFER Publishing, 1976.

Hutchinson, Roger L., Melanie K. Johnson, "Effects of Family Structure on Children's Self-Concepts." The Journal of Divorce 12 (1988) pg 124-138.

Kurdek, Lawrence A., eds. Children and Divorce. Washington: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1983.

Magnet, Myron. "The American Family." Fortune 10 Aug 1992: 42-47.

Nock, Steven L., and Martin C. Willets-Bloom. "The Effects of Childhood Family Structure and Perceptions of Parent's Maritial Happiness and Familial Aspirations." The Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 18 (1993) 3-19.

This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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