Thursday, November 10, 2005

Children of Divorce Wars: The Academic Debate

Recently a spate of book has engaged the question: Is divorce good for children? One side says, while some kids turn out badly, on the whole children of divorced parents do pretty well. Divorce is painful at the time for children, but in the long run does not harm most. There is such a thing as the "good divorce."

The other side says, while a few may remain unscathed, for the most part, children of parents who divorce do worse than kids from intact families in numerous ways. There is no such thing as the "good divorce."

It is more complicated than this for both positions, of course, but you get the picture. My thesis here is that you don't need to read these books to get their general drift -- if you have one piece of information about the authors. You need to know their general ideological orientation. I will call them for working purposes in this situation conservative and liberal.

Conservatives value tradition and the norms they represent. Things turn out better when people live in accordance with the institutional patterns given to us from the past, usually the more recent past, since all agree that some older traditions are bad, slavery, e. g. To put it differently, they give priority to structure and are skeptical of the capacity of freedom to create new patterns and practices that will work as well.

Conservatives and their sponsoring think tanks prefer studies that show children of divorce do badly. Moreover, the studies they do will pretty well confirm their preferences.

Liberals don't dismiss tradition outright but find enough wrong with it sometimes to justify a search for new patterns and practices that may be better. Traditional marriage, e. g., was male dominated, authoritarian, and put women in a subservient role. Put otherwise, they emphasize the capacity of human freedom and creativity to elaborate novel institutional arrangements that can be better for all.

Liberals therefore prefer studies that stress the possibility of the good divorce for the adults and the children. While a happy intact marriage is the best, divorce can be more or less harmless in the long run for children, their welfare, and life prospects. Studies done by them and their liberal sponsors will tend to support these preferences.

So don't bother to read all the books. Just try to find out whether the authors are conservatives or liberals in the sense defined, and you will know in advance in good measure where they will come out on the question of the long term effects of divorce on children.

Extremists and radicals at the far right and far left of the specturm just take these contrasting tendencies much further.

No dishonesty is imputed to anyone. With full integrity and good intentions all around, it just works out that way. There is so much variation in individual cases, so many ways to create and use methodologies, so much complexity in the data, so many ways of interpreting the bare facts that competent, reasonable people can come out at different places, each with a claim to truth.

But if you want to undertake all the reading, here is an annotated bibliography representing all sides on the issue prepared by a conservative institution whose preferences are evident in the short descriptions of each book:

The most interesting question for me in all this is how people come to have a particular ideology in the first place and how continuing experience and confrontation with fresh facts modify their stance. How do interpretive patterns and empirical data interact over time? How does individual temperament enter in relation to tendencies to persist in present beliefs versus openness to change? How do deep-rooted bias and commitment truth even if it requires a change of mind interact? These are questions of deep importance and not often enough pursued in cases like this.

Somebody once said that theologians should be forced to publish an intellectual autobiography alongside their books and articles. The same holds for people who write books on marriage and divorce. How did their life history, especially in childhood, and adult personal experience shape their outlook? These may be crucial factors, and yet they are generally ignored. Pursuit of them might even lead to understanding and to reduction of differences in interpretation. But, heck, a fight is much more exciting.

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