Better to Stay?
Experts Play Down Ill Effects of Divorce, Family Advocates Say
BY Steve Weatherbe
May 22-June 4, 2011 Issue | Posted 5/13/11 at 5:29 PM
NEW YORK — Social scientists are concealing the harm that divorce, single parenting and stepfamilies do to children. Not only that, they are also hiding the benefits which even unhappy marriages bestow, not just on children, but on the couples involved.
So claim the heads of several organizations devoted to defending traditional marriages.
“It’s a very sad occurrence when people, for reasons of political embarrassment, won’t say what they believe,” said David Blankenhorn, head of the Institute for American Values. Blankenhorn worries that government agencies and other institutions will frame policies based on misreported scientific findings that disfavor the traditional family.
Elizabeth Marquardt, head of the Manhattan-based Center for Marriage and Families, sparked the debate when she challenged a report from Child Trends, a research organization based in Washington, D.C., that showed the happier the parents’ relationship is, the happier, better socialized and more successful the children are.
The report, “Parental Relationship Quality and Child Outcomes Across Subgroups,” found couples’ satisfaction correlated positively with child behaviors regardless of the family structure, class and ethnicity.
All well and good, said Marquardt in an early April blog on the FamilyScholars.org website she edits. But why didn’t Child Trends even mention that its data also showed that the positive outcomes across all “subgroups” trended significantly upwards the more traditional the parents’ relationship?
Children living with biological or adoptive parents did better than those with their unmarried biological or adoptive parents; the outcomes were significantly worse for children in a married stepfamily and worst with one biological parent and an unmarried partner.
Worst Case: Live-In Boyfriends
“In other words,” summarized Marquardt, “the children in stepfamilies were over twice as likely to be reported as having behavior problems compared to children living with their own married parents. The children in a cohabiting step arrangement [a mother living with her boyfriend] were almost three times as likely to have these problems.”
Marquardt concluded by asking, “Why say that kids do fine in any kind of family structure so long as the adults in the home get along when your own data reveals a far more complex and troubling data?”
Kristin Moore, the lead researcher on the Child Trends report, which looked at data from an astounding 64,000 families, responded quickly with a blog comment, pointing out that the relationship between family structure and outcomes was “well established.” But her research team’s focus was on whether the connection between parental happiness and child success was true for all classes.
Later she told the Register she had done research on family structures herself. “It just wasn’t the purpose of this study,” she said.
“I don’t buy it,” responded Blankenhorn, whose Institute for American Values is the parent of Marquardt’s organization. He says Child Studies wants to ignore the impact of family structure on outcomes.
“But you can’t ignore the impact of structure on content,” he argues. “That’s like producing a study showing that it doesn’t matter if a child grows up without a father as long as there’s sufficient financial resources and a strong male influence. But it ignores that males spend their money on their own children and spend their time with their own children.”
Blankenhorn says researchers on family and child outcomes have told him they suppress their findings when they reflect badly on one family structure or another. “They don’t want to make people feel bad, but it’s not the job of scholars to be pastors or therapists. It’s to find out the truth,” he told the Register.
It is about more than protecting people’s feelings, says Blankenhorn: Political correctness too is involved in the suppression of findings.
Blankenhorn tells of being lambasted by the head of one family research organization back in the mid-2000s for using one of that organization’s studies to support an article he wrote for the Los Angeles Times against same-sex “marriage.”
“She didn’t claim I’d used the data wrongly. She just didn’t want her research associated in any way with being anti-same-sex ‘marriage.’ She actually tried to forbid me from ever doing it again.” Blankenhorn says he used “blunt language” to stand up for his right to use the data as he chose.
Diane Sollee, founder and director of Smart Marriages, a national coalition of marriage and family educators, says traditional, biological marriage is too important and beneficial for social scientists to soft-pedal.
“Society is telling people a lie: that if you married a jerk then you’ll be better off and your children will be better off if you dump him. ‘It’s not your fault: You just married the wrong person.’
“But what people need to hear is what research really shows: that your children will be much better off — much better off, according to every measure researchers can think of — if you can hang in there with the father of these children and make it work.”
For those who can “hang in there,” it gets even better: “Longevity studies show the mother will live longer, the father will live longer, and the children will live longer. They also show that the majority of couples who reported being deeply unhappy in their marriage and for whatever reason stayed in the marriage, in five years reported being happy, and many couldn’t even remember being unhappy.”
‘Stepfamilies Are Lethal’
Sollee also says that Child Trends’ analysis conceals the fact that “stepfamilies are lethal, especially when pre-teen children are involved.”
In such cases, the biological parent’s first loyalty inevitably goes to her children, putting an impossible strain on the marriage. Stepfamilies have a very low rate of success, she says.
Sollee’s Smart Marriages organization supports training for stepfamilies, but its emphasis is on the advantages for all of preserving the first marriage.
“And it is not a matter of picking the right partner, if not in the first time round, then in the second or third time round,” says Sollee. “It’s a matter of making the first marriage a success through hard, hard work.” This is the message that social scientists seem afraid to support.
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.
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