Marriage and Children–Part 2

Since the divorce explosion of the 1980s, economists, sociologists and psychologists have conducted thousands of studies of marriage. Every minute nubbin of marriage has gone under the microscope. We’ve learned a lot. Unfortunately, much of what we’ve learned remains unknown.

In a previous post—“The Champions of Marriage—Part 1”—I wrote that the college educated have a much lower divorce rate than those who don’t graduate from college. Most people think that divorce has affected all classes of Americans in roughly the same way—or even that the sophisticated, secular classes are most affected by a divorce culture. Not so. For the college educated, divorce is a disease. For the rest of American society, it is a pandemic.

Another little-known research finding can be summed up pretty simply. For children, marriage good. Everything else, bad.

Most people have a foggy idea that divorce can be hard on children, but that is like saying that jumping off high bridges offers certain health risks. Invariably, and by very large margins, studies find that to deprive a child of marriage between his biological parents, through single parenting, cohabitation, divorce, divorce and remarriage, or any other living arrangement is to greatly increase (often by two or three times) the child’s chances of living in poverty, failing in school, getting in trouble with the authorities, becoming addicted to drugs, experiencing a wide range of health problems, having a child out of wedlock, and growing up to suffer depression and relational failures of his or her own.

Powerful differences are observed at every economic level and among all ethnic groups. For example, 11% of white kids from two-parent biological families drop out of high school, versus 28% from white single-parent families or step-families. Mary Parke, a policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy, reports that children of divorce are “more than twice as likely to have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems as children of intact families—25 percent versus 10 percent.”

As Harvard professors David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks put it in an often-cited 2004 paper, “Children raised by both of their biological parents did better than children raised in any alternative arrangement. There was no consistent difference between children raised by remarried mothers, divorced mothers, and never-married mothers.”

If we found a prescription drug as good for children’s welfare as marriage, the drug companies would not have to advertise. Word of mouth would have people lining up outside pharmacies in a week.

Over the past few decades Americans have learned all sorts of important information about how to protect children from harm—from crib death, from choking, from sexual predation, from peanut allergies. Too bad we know so little about the factor that outweighs all others. Gangs, drugs, chaotic schools, video games—these and other factors are readily labeled as threats to children. But unmarried parenting and divorce rarely get named as the dangers they clearly are.

As a result, kids simply don’t know. A survey of high school seniors asked whether a single woman who chooses to have a baby solo is experimenting with a worthwhile lifestyle and not affecting anyone else. Fifty-six percent said yes. Asked whether most people would have a fuller and happier life if they chose marriage over singleness or living together, only about a third agreed or mostly agreed. [“State of Our Unions” report from the National Marriage Project of Rutgers University.] A survey of teenagers by the University of Michigan asked whether “it is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along.” Sixty-four percent of boys and 57% of girls says yes.  [The Economist, May 24, 2007]

These beliefs are completely at odds with scientific data. I asked sociologist David Popenoe, author of the National Marriage Project’s 2007 “State of Our Unions” report, why he thought social scientists’ unanimous findings were so little known and discussed. He said, “Probably for the same reason you don’t hear many sermons on divorce. It’s controversial.” People don’t like to imply that some people’s choices are wrong. Why “blame the victim?”

I doubt that information will cure what ails us. It might be a starting point, however. Somehow college graduates “get” that marriage is a huge benefit for them and their kids. Why shouldn’t everybody know that?


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4 Responses to “Marriage and Children–Part 2”

  1. Silas Says:

    1) what does this mean for adopted children?
    2) what about children growing up with married parents in a dysfunctional marriage? Surely there is a point at which it is healthier for the child if the parents divorce?

    • timstafford Says:

      I don’t know of any studies of adopted children. I’d be interested to learn about that. Of course, whatever their long-term welfare, it has to be compared with their potential welfare without any parents.
      The subject of children in a dysfunctional marriage is complex, particularly because it is so hard to define “dysfunctional.” Nobody I know doubts that there are times when divorce is the only possible way ahead, for the welfare of all concerned. My concern is that we not obfuscate the difficulties for children that divorce generally brings. Divorcing people and those who love them want desperately to believe that they are doing the right thing. And they may be. But let’s not kid ourselves about the cost, especially for children.

  2. Debra Agee-Burton Says:

    re: the ? of children in a dysfunctional marriage, I can address that b/c I was a child in a fam w/ an alcoholic father. It was hell. It bred contempt for our mother who was the ‘enabler, staying together for the children’ for far too long, in addition to distrust and rage at our unreliable & sometimes violent father. BUT that is not the end of the story: God can redeem the broken and I continue to be healed from this & enjoy a good if not ‘ideal’ marriage of 31 yrs. So I would say that Any marriage is not worth staying in ‘for the sake of the children’, but minus abuse – of any kind – or unfaithfulness, I hope people will recognize the value of working toward reconciliation w/ their spouse. It takes daily humility & that seems to be in short supply.

  3. Yolanda Miller Says:

    1) i love that silas posted to his dad on this. awesome.

    2) also in response to silas’ question #2, i think my parents’ marriage qualifies–but unlike debra, it was not an abusive situation. although it was miserable at times, i can say that i’m glad they stayed together and stuck it out.
    one of the reasons why it’s said that divorce is so hard on kids is that they are often in the custody of the mother, and due to other cultural phenomena beyond single moms’ control, many end up suffering greatly, financially speaking. now, i’ll be the first to admit that money isn’t everything, but adding worries such as whether of not your mom will be able to pay the rent to a kid’s growing pile of insecurities isn’t going to help an already stressful situation. so i guess what i’m saying is, biblical mandates aside, is the stress of being in a split family worth the cost of “escaping” the stress of a dysfunctional (but not abusive) marriage? i think the answer isn’t as clearly yes as our current culture would have us believe.

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