To judge from magazine covers, the American divorce rate is either a disaster for children or no problem at all. First came the famous “Dan Quayle Was Right” article in The Atlantic in 1993, with a cover line that said divorce “dramatically weakens and undermines our society.” Then, in 1998, Newsweek heralded The Nurture Assumption, whose author, Judith Rich Harris, argued that whether parents divorce makes little difference in children’s lives because genetics and peer groups determine their problems. This September, Time featured The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, a book whose authors, psychologists Judith Wallerstein and Julia Lewis and journalist Sandra Blakeslee, brought the gloomy news that a majority of children of divorce still suffer twenty-five years later. What’s a reader to think?
The facts are not in dispute: The American divorce rate doubled in the 1960s and 1970s and has held steady or possibly declined a bit since then. At current rates, about half of all marriages will end in divorce. One million children experience a parental divorce every year. Most of them are upset in the immediate aftermath of the breakup. Some act out, others become withdrawn. Too often, fathers fail to provide adequate financial support and mothers and children see their standards of living drop. Without doubt, going through a divorce is a traumatic experience for parents and children alike.
But are most children harmed in the long term? On this question, recent media coverage has lurched between two extremes. At one end is the doomsday view that divorce sentences children to life at emotional hard labor. In this view, a parental divorce starts a chain of events that leaves most adult children anxious, unhappy and often unable to make a commitment to a partner. At the other end is the evolutionary psychologists’ view that children’s behavior is genetically programmed, so that whether parents divorce doesn’t matter very much. According to this line of reasoning, divorce is just a flag that identifies genetically challenged families whose troubles would have occurred even if the parents had stayed together.
Said this starkly, neither extreme seems convincing. Yet it is a sad fact of public debates about social problems that the extremes tend to capture everyone’s attention. Magazines are sold and talk shows are fueled by the announcement that a particular problem is devastating American society and then by the news that–wait a minute–it’s really not a big problem after all. There’s little patience for discussions of problems that are serious but not calamitous. And yet the gravity of many social problems lies in the demilitarized zone between the extremes.
For example, consider teenage childbearing. It was initially declared a scourge. A leading researcher wrote famously in 1968, “The girl who has an illegitimate child at the age of 16 suddenly has 90 percent of her life’s script written for her.” More recently, however, some researchers and commentators have argued that most teenage mothers would not be better off had they delayed having children. Teenage childbearing, it is alleged, merely reflects growing up in disadvantaged circumstances. Poor teen mothers would still be poor even if they hadn’t had their babies. While there is some merit to this argument, research suggests that having a baby as a teenager does add to the difficulties girls from disadvantaged backgrounds face.