Divorce, Single Parenting and Kids' Well-being

Studies Show Importance of Stable Family Structure

| 1845 hits

NEW YORK, JUNE 3, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Changes in family structures have placed many children in difficulties. In a nutshell this is the argument of two studies released March 30 by the Institute for American Values. The studies, both authored by Norval Glenn and Thomas Sylvester, are based on an examination of articles published in the Journal of Marriage and Family from 1977 to 2002.



Introducing the first study, "The Shift: Scholarly Views of Family Structure Effects on Children, 1977-2002," the authors comment that academic opinions can be broadly divided into two camps. The first can be termed pro-marriage, and argues that the decline in marriage has been a troubling trend, especially for children.

The second, labeled "pro-family diversity," maintains that families haven't been weakened by divorce and unwed childbearing, but have just changed in form. The changes in family structures, this opinion holds, have not had such a negative effect on children after all.

In the 1970s, right after divorce laws were liberalized, the more optimistic view prevailed. By the end of the 1980s, concerns increased and many commentators worried about increases in divorce and single parenting.

Research and debate on family structure effects continued in academic journals in the following years. More recently, the debate over divorce and unwed mothers has taken a back seat to conflicts over the issue of same-sex unions and their possible legalization.

Better with both

Glenn and Sylvester contend that the research over the effects of the shifts in family structure that started several decades ago is now clearer. "Most family scholars," they comment, "apparently now agree that the preponderance of the evidence indicates that children tend to do best when they grow up with their own two married parents, so long as the marriage is not marred by violence or serious conflict."

In many cases the divergences of opinion now center more on whether society can somehow compensate for the changes in family structures, so as to reduce the negative effects on children.

To provide a clearer opinion of research into family issues, Glenn and Sylvester examined all the relevant articles -- 266 in all -- published in the Journal of Marriage and Family over a 26-year period. This publication, they noted, is the most influential journal in family social science in the United States.

Glenn and Sylvester looked at three main family structures: children living with married biological or adoptive parents; children living with only one parent; and stepfamilies.

They found there was a substantial change in the studies, in the direction of expressing concern over changes in family structures, in the periods 1977-1982, and again in 1983-1987. Thus, concerned views became more prevalent, but it was not a steady change.

One important study they cite is a 1991 meta-analysis by Paul Amato and Bruce Keith, who pointed out that a host of negative outcomes are associated with parental divorce. Amato and Keith wrote: "The results lead to a pessimistic conclusion: the argument that parental divorce presents few problems for children's long-term development … is simply inconsistent with the literature on the topic."

Contrasting (and rosier) views were not absent, however. Glenn and Sylvester cited examples of some studies that denied any significant problems related to divorce.

Hard data

There is, nonetheless, an important factor to consider. The more-concerned views tended to be based on quantitative research, while the sanguine approach tended to be expressed in theoretical articles. "A major reason for this difference," Glenn and Sylvester conclude, "is probably, though not certainly, that the views of the authors of the quantitative pieces were more constrained by 'hard data' than those of the other authors and thus were less affected by preconceptions and ideological biases."

They do, however, add a note of caution regarding the quantitative studies. The evidence for negative effects on children resulting from changes in family structures is not conclusive. This is so because, ideally, evidence would have to be based on random studies; these cannot be done since it is impossible to divide families into groups and artificially impose divorce on the couples in one group and use the other as a control group.

Thus, Glenn and Sylvester caution that the statistical methods used are fallible. Nor is it possible to statistically prove a strict cause-effect relationship between divorce and negative consequences for children, they maintain. Still, the preponderance of the evidence "indicates that family structure matters, and matters to an important degree, for children," they conclude.

Debunked

The second paper by Glenn and Sylvester is titled: "The Denial: Downplaying the Consequences of Family Structure for Children." It looks at some of the arguments used by the authors of articles published in the Journal of Marriage and Family to justify a more optimistic view of the consequences of family changes.

In the early period, some academics argued that the increase in absences by fathers was not new, as in the past parental death used to be quite frequent. This thesis was debunked, however, in later years as subsequent research showed that parental death and divorce have different consequences for children. Outcomes for children who lose a parent to death, in fact, are substantially better than for children whose parents divorce.

Other earlier studies maintained that, in the case of a father's absence, other male figures (such as grandfathers, stepfathers and boyfriends) could serve as alternative male models or substitute for the missing parental role. Evidence to support this view is, however, scarce. "The hope that other men can easily substitute for absent biological fathers has received little or no empirical support," according to Glenn and Sylvester.

A more recent trend is to simply argue that divorce does not of itself necessarily doom children to suffer. But this approach is simply exaggerated, as serious family scholars never held that each and every child touched by divorce would be negatively affected.

A more serious argument made by some scholars who are relatively sanguine regarding divorce is that many problems assumed to be the result of the divorce actually stem from pre-divorce parental conflict.

A review of the evidence examined by Glenn and Sylvester reveals that some studies do, in fact, indicate that a portion of the alleged effects of divorce were present before the divorce occurred. There is not, however, agreement about the size of those effects.

Research leads to the conclusion that the end of a highly conflicted marriage seems to normally improve outcomes for children, freeing them as it does from an angry and unstable home life. But divorces that dissolve low-conflict marriages appear to have a strong negative influence on children. Importantly, the paper observes, one nationally representative study estimates that around two-thirds of divorces stem from low-conflict marriages.

An authentic good

Benedict XVI, in a May 11 address to members of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, observed: "Marriage and the family are rooted in the inmost nucleus of the truth about man and his destiny."

He continued: "The communion of life and love which is marriage thus emerges as an authentic good for society." Moreover, the Pope insisted that we must avoid confusing marriage with other types of unions, which are based on a weaker type of love.

"It is only the rock of total, irrevocable love between a man and a woman that can serve as the foundation on which to build a society that will become a home for all mankind," the Holy Father concluded. Secular academic research amply backs up that conclusion.