žAbout fifty percent of American children born in the žbaby bustÓ period (1970-1984) will still live with their natural parents by the age of seventeenÓ (Popenoe 13). The only other time in history when this many children were not living with both of their natural parents was in the early 17th-century when only 31 percent of white children reached the age of 18 with both parents still alive (13). During this time death was to blame for the lack of both parents, not divorce. žToday, well over 90 percent of AmericaŪs youngsters reach 18 with two living parentsÓ (13). During the 1960Ūs only 9.1 percent of all American children lived in single parent homes. Since that time the rate of divorce has skyrocketed. Lawrence Stone, the noted Princeton University family historian claims that ž[t ]he scale of marital breakdowns in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent that I know of, and seems uniqueÓ (13). As the divorce rate has risen and more children have been caught in the middle of divorces, the welfare of the children has become a big concern for many people. As many people have considered if divorce is always good for children, they have been divided into two groups. One groups believes that children do suffer drastically with divorces while others feel that children can benefit from a divorce rather than continuing to live in an unhappy intact home.
Some researchers believe that children benefit when their parents have a divorce. These researchers believe that it is better for a child to get the attention of just one parent rather than the attention of two parents who cannot put their differences aside to raise their child. žMarital discord may preoccupy and distract parents, leaving them emotionally unavailable and unable to deal with their childrenŪs needs. It also may cause parents to be irritable and explosive in dealing with the offspringÓ (Amato and Booth 364). When the child is forced to live with one parent the relationship between that parent and the child usually better. žSome observers have suggested that relationships might actually be stronger after divorce, noting that parent-child relationships in single-parent families tend to be characterized by less authority and more mutualityÓ (White 936). As the one-on-one relationship with the parent and child becomes better the relationship encourages the child to žassume more self and family responsibility and to participate more fully in important family decisionsÓ (Gately and Schwebel 167). As the child assumes more responsibilities they are viewed to become more mature and žmay experience increased self-esteemÓ (169).
The researchers that believe divorce is not bad for children also believe that žmany problems previously assumed to be due to divorce are actually present before marital disruption. these results also suggest that the effects of divorce are smaller than those reported in many cross-sectional studies, once predivorce child and family variables are taken into accountÓ (Amato and booth 364). They also believe that the discord and conflict in the home prior to a divorce are more detrimental than a parents absence after the divorce (Popenoe 19). One study that researchers conducted žfound that, prior to divorce, parents who later divorced demonstrated less concern with and more rejection of sons than did parents who remained marriedÓ (Amato and Booth 357).
On the other side of the debate researchers feel that divorce can be detrimental to children; they feel that the parents should work things out. This way of thinking has been around for a fairly long period of time, in fact ž[i]n the 1950Ūs most Americans believed that parents should stay in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the children. The assumption was that a divorce would damage the children, and the prospect of such damage gave divorce its meaningÓ (Whitehead, 150). The way a child acts during and after a divorce is very disturbing to these researchers: žChildren whose parents divorce are more likely to experience involvement in deviant behavior, school problems, and psychological maladjustment during childhood, as well as low educational and occupational attainment, lower psychological well-being, earlier marriage and childbearing, and greater likelihood of divorce and nonmarital childbearing in early adulthood than are children who grow up in intact two-parent familiesÓ (White 936).
In some families a divorce occurs when a child may be very young and the žloss of a parent at an early age has been found to have long-term consequences for both boys and girlsÓ (Healy, Malley, and Stewart 531). With the loss of a parent at an early age there is strong evidence that shows žchildrenŪs relationships with noncustodial parents suffer and, in many cases, are virtually extinguished after divorceÓ (White 936). The National Commission on Children declared that žŽchildren do best when they have the personal involvement and material support of a father and a mother, and when both parents fulfill their responsibility to be loving providersŪÓ ( Kosterlitz 1454). The results of some tests ž...suggest that problematic parent-child relations associated with divorce persist throughout the life courseÓ (Amato and Booth 357) which is very disturbing to these researchers. It is bad enough for a child to have to go through any pain, but for it to follow them throughout the rest of their life is horrible. Some problems that these adult children will face when they grow up are moderate or sever depression; they may appear to be troubled, drifting, and underachieving; and some will struggle to establish strong love relationships of their own (Whitehead 156). Some people may ask the question, If a child needs both a mother and a father why canŪt a spouse remarry? That should solve everything some would think, but these researchers feel that step-families are not the answer; ž..one-fourth to one-third of adolescent step-children disengage themselves emotionally and physically from their step-family. It is not surprising then, that most observers find step-families less cohesive than intact familiesÓ (White 936).
The final concern that these researchers have is the absence of the father in most single-parent families. The father has many things that must instill his children. As fathers play with their children the father is helping certain processes like the management of emotions to intelligence and academic achievement. One may think that a father playing with his children is not that important, but the žfindings of a study of convicted murders in Texas are probably not the product of coincidence: 90 percent of them either did not play as children or played abnormallyÓ (Popenoe 20). Not only does the father need to support his child mentally and emotionally, but he must support his children economically. žBy the best recent estimates, the income of the household in which a child remains after a divorce instantly declines by about 21 percent per capita on average, while expenses tend to go upÓ (15). As soon as the father leaves the child his income is no longer going to support the child. If the child is living with the father than the father does not have the rest of the missing spouses income to help support the child. The one thing that can solve this dilemma is what a father and sociologist has said: žI have found few other bodies of evidence that lean so much in one direction as this one: on the whole, two parents--a father and a mother--are better for a child than one parentÓ (15).
As the rate of divorce continues to rise and more children continue to live in single-parent homes, the debate about the welfare of children will continue with it! As more studies are done maybe a better solution can be worked out.
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.