Children of Divorce and the Problem of Averages

There’s this essay in the New York Times today.  The taking off point is the study discussed here which focuses on the effects of divorce on children.   The study concludes that children of divorce suffer harms after divorce.  Adjusting to their new lives can be difficult.   This, of course, makes parents like Susan Gregory Thomas (who wrote the essay in the Times) worry.

Now I’m not about to say there’s no reason to worry.   But surely what that study shows (and I confess I am guessing here because in what I have read I have not found these exact words) is that on average children of divorce suffer.   (I make this assumption because I cannot believe that the study showed that every child of divorced parents suffered.)   And of course, as nearly always the case with averages, what that means is that some children perform above average and some below–which is what gives you the average.  (The exception here are the children of Lake Wobegon, who are all above average.) 

This interpretation makes sense to me, given the explanation offered by Hyun Sik Kim, the study’s author:

Children may be stressed by an ongoing parental blame game or child custody conflicts. This stress could be compounded by the loss of stability when a child is shuttled between separate households or has to move to another region altogether, thus losing contact with his or her original network of friends.ik Kim, the study’s author.

(To be clear, this is a quote from the article I linked to but apparently not a direct quote from the author of the study.)  What this suggests to me is that to the extent the parents play a blame game, the children suffer.  If they parents can avoid this, it would therefore follow that the children suffer less.

What this all adds up to is rather what is suggested by the essay from the Time:  It matters how parents manage post-divorce life.   If they behave as Thomas and her ex-husband did and put the interests of the children first, then the outcome for the kids needn’t be so grim.   Indeed, the study at issue actually suggests some specific things parents can do to make things better.

And this is the problem with averages.   I often think they obscure as much as they reveal.   It’s too easy to leap from a statement about “children of divorce” to a conclusion about my child.    But as with so many other things, your child could be above average or below average and perhaps what you do has more to do with that than the average reveals.

There’s another lingering question I have–one I do not see the answer to in what I can find.  Would the children of parents who divorced and who managed things well be better off if those parents had stayed married?  My inclination is to guess not.   To the extent that parental depression can be something hard for children to deal with (which is something the study seems to affirm), staying in an unhappy marriage may not provide any benefit to the child either.

All of which means that for me studies like the one discussed here are important, but more because they tell us what we can do that will matter in our children’s lives than for any other reason.

 

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4 responses to “Children of Divorce and the Problem of Averages

  1. You hit on this a little and it is my problem with all studies…they suffer compared to what? Compared, like you said to what they would have been experiencing had their parents remained married and miserable to each other? Or are they comparing children with divorced parent to children of blissfully happy couples frankly, married or not. Or blissfully happy people married or not. I mean do they compare their economic situations and the relative health of family members weather or not there are siblings, half siblings step siblings the variables go on and on. Children do well when they have a calm homelife they can feel safe in, one where people treat one another respectfully that could be any number of configurations

  2. Marilynn – I agree. If there was a study on children who lived until 18 in a home where their parents were unhappily married, it would probably have a lot of children who struggled emotionally as well, as a result of a home life with two people who hated each other. So I don’t think it’s really accurate to compare children of divorced parents to all children with married parents.

  3. I believe there has been studies which differentiate between high conflict and low conflict marriages.

    • I think that is right. And also high conflict and low conflict divorces, I think, and in general they show (I’m guessing here, but with some dim memory) that less conflict is better for chlidren. I think where they fail us is when a particular individual tries to decide “should I stay in this low-conflict marriage or should I opt for a (hopefully low-conflict) divorce with the associated possibility of a better life for both parents at the end of the day?” It’s pretty hard to design a study to answer that. What you can learn is the things you can do during/after the divorce to minimize the impact on the children.

      I’m often reminded of research about children’s well-being where one parent dies. My recollection is that what that shows is that the best indicator of child well-being is the well-being of the remaining parent. In other words, if the surviving parent can construct a good life it is better for the children. Does this suggest that having two more contented, albeit divorced, parents is better than having two married (and less contented) parents? It might–especially if the divorced parents take seriously their ability to effect the well-being of the kids by their own actions, as the one’s in the essay seem to.

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