Quayle was on the mark

Mona Charen

March 31, 1993|By Mona Charen

The cover of the April Atlantic Monthly states the issue boldly: "Dan Quayle was right."

The dissolution of traditional families over the past 30 years may have been good for adults, but it has been disastrous for children, and for society at large.

"Children in single-parent families," writes Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, "are six times as likely to be poor . . . are two to three times as likely to have emotional and behavioral problems . . . are more likely to drop out of high school, to get pregnant as teen-agers, to abuse drugs and to be in trouble with the law.

". . . Many children from disrupted families have a harder time achieving intimacy in a relationship, forming a stable marriage, or even holding a steady job."

The great unraveling began in the mid-1960s, writes Ms. Whitehead. Some tried to put a positive spin on these changes -- arguing not just that divorce and single motherhood were liberating for adults, but beneficial for children as well. It was thought that single mothers would prove resourceful breadwinners; that extended families and stepfamilies would offer a larger circle of attachment for children; and that family "diversity" would enhance the nation just as ethnic and religious diversity had done.

Well, the social science data are now in, and none of those cheery assumptions has been proved correct. Eroding the two-parent family has had painful and sometimes pathological effects on children.

And so Dan Quayle was right. The response of the "chattering class" to his plea for family stability was the most shameful exercise since Pat Moynihan was tarred as a racist for observing that illegitimacy among blacks in 1965 was reaching alarming levels. (It was then 25 percent; it is now 57 percent.) The smug self-satisfaction of the "Murphy Brown" set would not survive exposure to this article.

In light of these data, people can argue that adults' happiness is just as important as children's -- but they can no longer honestly maintain that divorce and single-motherhood are good for kids. This obviously does not mean that no one with kids should ever divorce, nor does it mean that we should "blame" single mothers. But there is a reality to be faced: For most children, growing up with only one parent is economically, psychologically and emotionally harmful.

The drop in income for divorced women and children has been well-documented. Less familiar are data showing that 38 percent of recently divorced mothers move within the first year, usually in search of cheaper accommodations. That represents a compounded disruption in the lives of children -- not just the loss of a father, but removal to a different community and separation from friends.

For most children of divorce, the father is gone as a father. He often becomes a "parent without portfolio," more like an uncle or a cousin than a dad. At worst, he disappears entirely from his children's lives. According to the National Survey of Children, in disrupted families only one child in six saw his or her father as often as once a week.

Ten years after a divorce, more than two-thirds of children report not having seen their father for a year.

Nor are relations with mothers improved by divorce. Only half of the children who were close to their mothers before divorce remained so afterward. The introduction of boyfriends and new husbands puts added strain on relations between mothers and children -- and sometimes represents a threat to the children.

A Canadian study found that preschool children in stepfamilies were 40 times as likely to suffer abuse as children in intact families.

Family structure lies at the heart of some of the most vexing social problems we face. Take crime: More than 70 percent of all juveniles in state reform institutions come from fatherless homes.

Poverty? More than half the increase in child poverty during the 1980s is attributable to family breakup.

Education? The presence in classrooms of significant numbers of children with serious emotional crises at home dramatically undermines the mission of schools.

Family dissolution is taking a terrible toll on children -- and thus, on America.

Mona Charen writes a syndicated column.

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