How divorce affects kids: some facts

Q&A

August 17, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin has studied and written about family relationships for nearly two decades. Earlier this summer, Dr. Cherlin received a $1.5 million, five-year National Institutes of Health award to continue his research into the effects of divorce on children.

Dr. Cherlin and his colleagues -- including Baltimore native Frank Furstenberg of the University of Pennsylvania -- have been tapping into data gathered by the British government on every child born there in 1958. Those 17,414 people were interviewed at ages 7, 11, 16, 23 and 33, giving the researchers a continuing look at the subjects and the effects of divorce over time.

Dr. Cherlin's team is also studying data on the effects of divorce on children younger than 6.

QUESTION: What can you say, in general, about the effect of divorce on children?

ANSWER: Divorce hurts some children, but it doesn't seriously hurt most children in the long run.

Today, roughly 40 percent of all kids in this country witness the breakup of their parents' marriage. Most people cope with it adequately in the long run.

Q: What are the major findings of your research?

A: Some of what we think of as effects of divorce are present in the home before the family even splits up. Conflict and tension hurt kids regardless of whether their parents split up.

In the British data, the kids whose parents were together at age 7, but were divorced by age 11, were doing worse [than children whose parents were still married]. They had more behavior problems and their performance was worse in school. By looking back, however, we found that kids whose parents would later divorce were already doing worse at 7.

Q: To what do you attribute this?

A: Two reasons: It could be that the divorce process starts well before parents split, and some families have difficulties that we can't see until the parents split up. Those difficulties -- abuse, tension -- hurt the children even though the parents are still married.

Q: Does your research indicate that children cope with divorce better at a certain age?

A: There's no clear evidence that any one time is easier than the other.

Q: Is there a way to help children through their parents' divorce?

A: What I think is important for parents to do -- the most impor

tant thing -- is to leave their kids out of any continuing conflict with their ex-spouse. It's best if you can avoid a long drawn-out war with your ex-spouse, but if you cannot, at least keep your kids out of it.

Q: What practical application will your findings have?

A: The application is to help us figure out how to help children cope with divorce, if we understand the process of divorce. I would like to come up with some findings that help clinicians help kids in trouble. We might be able to say to a family whose relationship is abusive that divorce won't hurt the children more. If you see a family whose marriage is OK, but somebody is bored [with his or her partner], the children would probably be better off if the marriage continues.

Q: Why do you think the family has become a popular topic of study and conversation?

A: Until the 1980s, it was not a hot topic. Then it became a public issue. The debate started about child care and family leave. I also think that the problems that American children have been showing cause more people to have an interest in studying the family.

There's more interest in the family now than when I started doing this research in the mid-1970s.

Q: What are some of the continuing trends in families?

A: There's a tension between what people find personally satisfying and their need for some bonds.

I don't think family ties are in danger of slipping away. I think the place of marriage in family life is slipping, but people are forming unions. Singers in the 1950s sang "Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage . . . you can't have one without the other." But with greater acceptance of divorce and intimate relationships outside of marriage, you can have one without the other.

Q: And what is the effect of this trend?

A: Other things being equal, it's better to have two parents who stay together. On average, these trends are not good for children.

Q: Do you think we'll ever return to the families of the 1950s, families that are characterized by the old Ozzie and Harriet reruns, where mom stayed home and dad went to the office and all was right with the world?

A: No. The 1950s were the most distinctive time of the 20th century. They may have been an anomaly.

The '50s may have been a good time to be a kid, but they certainly were not typical. There was a cost to be paid for the 1950s family -- mainly by women who could not pursue a career or an independent life.

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