Divided Families, Whole Children

When Fred Louis [names in this article have been changed] looks back at everything that went haywire last year--leaving school, drinking heavily, feeling bottom-less misery--it seems as if his parents' divorce a decade before was, at the root. An earnest, barrel-chested 17-year-old with a broad, mild smile, he didn't understand the full extent of the damage at first. In fact, he thought he had come to a kind of truce with the divorce. Instead, his feelings about the divorce sneaked up and uncoiled on him.

Divorce is often held responsible for the difficulties of millions of children like Fred. Divorce and unwed motherhood are being blamed for children's school troubles, delinquency, and drug abuse, as well as a renewed cycle of teenage pregnancy and family collapse. Yet the reality is far more complex than the cartoon.

Sarah and Bill Louis divorced when Fred, their second of three children, was seven years old. All Fred recalls prior to the divorce is his parents' "fighting about everything." Although Bill Louis had been attentive to Fred early in his childhood, in the year before the divorce Bill was home only on weekends. Though he was pleasant with Fred, he seemed in another world, glued to the television or tinkering endlessly with his sports car.

Although Fred was aware of trouble in his parents' marriage, the divorce blindsided him. One day his parents were together, it seemed, and the next day they were divorced. His older sister told him she had overheard a telephone conversation between their parents. Their father was not coming home again.

In fact, the marriage had begun to collapse about three years earlier. Sarah worked as a secretary for Bill's insulation business out of their home--and she recalls his carping at her constantly: "I didn't talk right, I wore the wrong clothes." In the last year of the marriage, Bill developed a serious alcohol problem. When he was drunk his anger spilled out viciously.

Sarah hated her marriage but felt emotionally and financially dependent on Bill. She was devastated when he told her that he had been seeing another woman and was moving in with her. Bill also insisted he needed their house for his business, and it was Sarah and the children who had to move out. Sarah landed a part-time nursing job, but she was still unable to adequately clothe and feed the three children every day. Within a few months she found another job in the evening that kept the family out of poverty. She arranged to have a neighbor watch all three of the children.

Sarah thinks that Fred, of all her children, took the divorce the hardest, though at first the damage was not apparent to her either. In fact, she leaned on Fred more than the other children after the divorce. By her lights, Fred had always maintained an inner sturdiness. He became a kind of partner to her, even though he was only seven years old. When she was upset, she depended on him to help with housework and to supervise his younger brother.

Fred, for his part, worried about his mother intensely. For hours, he recalls, she cried or stared blankly at the television. She looked like a zombie. Often he tried to buoy her, reassuring her that the pain would pass. And he hid from her how abandoned he felt by his father.

His mother, Fred recalls, pulled out of her fog about two years later, and for a few years life at home seemed easier and more pleasant than Fred had ever remembered. Around the time that Fred turned 11, however, his anger at his father, which had often gusted, turned into a gale. He saw his father about once a month, but his father--wearing black leather jackets, driving a motorcycle, racing professional drag cars--seemed pathetic, ashamed of his age. Bill Louis had also married the woman with whom he had been having the affair. She was a much younger woman; Fred felt she treated him like an interloper. Even more galling, Fred was told by his mother when he was twelve that his father was not paying child support.

When Fred started to become "cynical" in the ninth grade, it was his disillusionment with his father, he now believes, that was the source. He became a leader of the "druggie" gang, and fought frequently with rival gangs, though he was not a drug user himself. Although he managed to leave the gang, when he entered high school he lost contact with his father completely--"we just stopped calling each other"--and he found himself rudderless. The school seemed huge and impersonal. Not a single school administrator even knew his name. While he had been a leader in middle school, he was now "at the bottom of the totem pole." Nor could he turn to his mother for help. It seemed to him that Sarah was hardly ever home; when she was home she was distracted or critical of him.

Every day it now seemed to him that he was "rotting," that "the sand was going in the hourglass." School seemed almost surreal: "I was there but I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to do."

He began skipping school, sometimes persuading friends to skip with him. Sarah was shocked when she received the call from the assistant principal at Fred's school; Fred had been absent for 30 days. This was not, to be sure, the first time Fred had had school troubles: many times she had tried to persuade teachers to 'look past the exterior," that beneath Fred's fighting with other children and sullen defiance was a bright child who simply needed some adult attention. But Sarah had always assumed that Fred, the child she relied on so completely, was suffering the normal down-turns of adolescence. She recalls one reason she failed to notice the signs of Fred's distress: she was too consumed with his younger brother, Kim, who had recently been arrested for drug possession.

One night Fred came home drunk and erased any illusions his mother had about his taking the divorce in stride. All his troubles, he told her, stemmed from the divorce. Brimming with bitterness and disgust, he said that his father had betrayed him and the whole family. Not only had his father broken off contact with him, the man had ended up living quite comfortably, while the rest of the family had been dumped into poverty. The divorce, Fred said, had ruined it for all of them.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

There is no question that divorce does harm to large numbers of children--Fred Louis is no exception. It is simply a myth that divorce doesn't damage kids. Yet it is also a myth that divorce is some modern scourge. Divorce and single parenthood are not the prime cause of school problems and other childhood problems in this country--and large numbers of children are spared serious problems because of divorce.

Divorce typically has complex costs and benefits for individual children like Fred. He was vulnerable in different ways after the divorce than he would have been had his parents' miserable marriage stayed intact. Fred felt ashamed and abandoned by his father after his divorce. But he may have felt ashamed and abandoned in different ways if the marriage had remained intact, with his father remote and constantly fighting with his mother. And while divorce brought many hardships to Sarah, it also pulled her out of a dead-end marriage that was killing her spirit and badly compromising her ability to parent--and of course it was primarily upon her parenting, not Bill's, that Fred relied.

Further, the damage that divorce does to children varies enormously, depending on many factors such as the responsiveness of parents, schools, and community adults. Ideological warfare over the precise damage done by divorce is the wrong debate. Rather, policymakers and those who deal directly with children need a greater understanding of these complexities so that they can create communities and schools that will both help families stay together and keep children from unraveling when their families are torn apart.


One serious consequence of divorce is that most children like Fred Louis will effectively lose their fathers. In some 90 percent of divorces, mothers are awarded custody of their children. Ten years after a divorce, fathers will be entirely absent from the lives of almost two-thirds of these children. Vanishing fathers often mean vanishing income--children are about twice as likely to be living in poverty after their parents divorce.

Those who decry divorce typically depict couples leaving each other casually and selfishly, out of boredom or a lack of fulfillment. They conjure up couples in the throes of mid-life crises itching to fulfill vague, immature ambitions or indulging themselves with younger lovers--a description that indeed fits Bill Louis. At the same time, few advocates of tougher divorce laws think women should stay with alcoholic and abusive husbands like Bill. Family therapists suggest that while some people divorce casually, people typically divorce for diverse and serious reasons, especially when children are involved. Often parents divorce because one or both partners are too immature to communicate effectively and to work through the inevitable disappointments and compromises of marriage. Sometimes a marriage cannot withstand the long illness or the long depression of a partner. Families can decay in many ways.

And children can suffer from many different kinds of family decay. Although statistics show that children from divorced families have more school and peer problems than children from intact families, they do not account for how children from divorced families would have fared had their parents not divorced but stayed together in rotting marriages. In fact, there is evidence that many children show signs of greater trouble in school months and even years prior to a divorce.

A study that tracked children in a Berkeley (California) nursery school beginning in 1968 shows that years before their parents' split, boys whose parents would eventually divorce were more likely to exhibit various behavior problems, such as impulsiveness and rudeness, than boys whose families stayed together (far smaller differences were found among girls). Children in high-conflict homes are also just as likely to drop out of school, marry as teens, have a child before marrying, and themselves divorce as are children from divorced homes, according to researchers James Peterson and Nicholas Zill. While divorce appears to be one factor contributing to school problems, marriage problems, and work problems, it is by no means their primary cause.


Consider Ann Waters, a lithe 10-year-old child in Boston. While many children like Fred end up in caretaking roles after divorce, Ann spent a good time taking care of her father prior to her parents' divorce. The father worked part-time and spent much of the day languishing around the house, often drunk and depressed. Ann's mother worked long hours, and every morning Ann awoke early to cook her father's breakfast. She also rushed home to run errands for him after school and to cook dinner. She enjoyed taking on these tasks, but her friendships suffered. Even when there was time Ann often felt like she was "too mature" for her friends. Her friends called her "bossy." In her free time she chose to read instead.

After the divorce, Ann was referred to a therapist by her mother, who said she was having temper tantrums. As her therapist puts it, after the divorce Ann suffered a kind of "demotion in the family" With her father out of the house, she no longer was a needed caretaker. Her mother was home more often but would not allow Ann to play this caretaker role. "Instead of treating Ann like an adult," this therapist adds, "Ann's mother treated her like she should treat her--as a ten year old--but Ann hated that. She became enraged about being treated like a child. "

While Ann Waters was in turmoil after her parents' divorce, it is hard to argue that she was either better or worse off. She was simply vulnerable in different ways. Prior to the divorce, Ann was vulnerable because she shouldered responsibility for her father--a role that not only made it hard for her to make friends, but that made it hard for her to be a child. Had this marriage remained intact, these problems might have greatly intensified as Ann reached adolescence and sought some separation from her father. On the other hand, Ann's relationship with her father was certainly not wholly negative: the divorce deprived her of the consistent contact of a parent whom she loved and who loved her and who provided her with the satisfaction of being needed.

For many children divorce is not a single event but a series of events: their families will change shape several times and each arrangement strengthens them in certain ways and creates new vulnerabilities. Often children endure their parents' separation and divorce, life with a mother and her lover, and a remarriage--75 percent of custodial mothers and 80 percent of fathers remarry. Remarriage often brings a new set of siblings and sometimes another divorce--the divorce rate is higher in second marriages than in first marriages. Their children's most important relationships are thus rearranged several times. Moreover, many of the variables that most strongly influence the fate of children of divorce--whether a father disappears, whether a remarriage occurs, the success and nature of the remarriage--are simply not variables that shape children's lives in intact families. According to David Kantor, a pioneering family therapist, 'We need to create entirely different models for understanding children in intact families and in divorced families."


It is not divorce per se that does lasting damage to children as much as the way divorce interacts with many circumstances surrounding it. Children are not only affected by how their parents handle divorce--by unexplained acrimony, by being used as weapons or as messengers in divorce wars, by how parents adjust to being alone--but also by their experiences in the larger world with friends, with community adults, and with school.

Often divorce is damaging to children like Fred Louis, for example, because it forces their families to move, wrenching them from old friends and familiar schools and communities and exposing them to poorer, often more dangerous neighborhoods. Studies cited by sociologist Stephanie Coontz disentangled the effects of divorce from the effects of moving to a new neighborhood after a divorce. Coontz found that dislocation was more likely to hurt children's school prospects than divorce per se. Even when children do not actually move, divorce can untether them from supporters and loved ones, such as their father's family and friends.

Schools figure powerfully in these dynamics. Social worker and divorce-researcher Dan Hertzel says that the damage done by divorce is often much deeper because school staff don't know how to talk to children about it (many typically elect not to talk about it all), exacerbating the shame children often feel. Many children, Hertzel points out, will provoke or "test" their teachers after a divorce. 'They want to know if teachers, too, will abandon them, and sometimes they may secretly hope that causing trouble will get their parents to come to a meeting together." Yet teachers have little or no training in how to respond to this testing.

Hertzel adds that teachers are far more comfortable talking to children who have suffered the deaths of family members than they are to children who have suffered their parents' divorce: "There are no rituals for school staff that can guide them in dealing with children after a divorce." Schools also have few guidelines when faced with decisions about whether to maintain the involvement of fathers, whether to encourage divorced parents to make educational decisions for their children jointly, and whether to include stepparents or cohabitating adults in school activities. Often high turnover among teachers and other personnel, especially daycare workers, further compounds the damage done by divorce.

Most often, it is a chain of interactions involving children's attributes, parents' characteristics and the characteristics of schools and communities that determine the damage wrought by divorce. Fred Louis is endangered not only because he is abandoned by his father at a critical developmental stage, but because he loses contact with his father just as he is entering a large, impersonal high school where he has little close contact with adults, where he feels on the bottom of the totem pole and where many of his friends are similarly disaffected. Fred is also imperiled because he is thrust into a caretaker role prematurely and learns to cope with stress by asserting his independence and taking control--a coping strategy that is useful for him for a few years after the divorce but that may make it easy for him to slip into a leadership role in a gang and that may play a part in his escalating conflicts with teachers. At the same time, his mother, strapped by two jobs and preoccupied with his younger brother, does not know about his drift and is not contacted by the school for a month. Fred is endangered by a chain of interactions involving the loss of his father, his developmental stage, his specific coping strategies, his mother's coping strategies, his brother's troubles, a transition to high school, peers who are similarly distressed and an unresponsive school bureaucracy.


Protecting kids from the problems of divorce surely requires providing families with the support and counseling they need to stay together, emphasizing the serious troubles that divorce can bring, and reminding parents, again and again,' about their moral obligations to each other and their children. But it also requires creating communities and schools that give both parents and children in single parent families the steady support and responsiveness they need. Education researcher James Coleman has shown that children from single parent homes, if supported by community, educational, and religious networks, are no more likely to drop out of school than children from intact families. Yet the nation's major economic and social institutions are not designed to support single parent families: they have not caught up with the realities of modern family life.

Helping children through the experience of divorce does not mean recreating tight-knit neighborhoods: it does mean providing children and parents with a variety of opportunities for ongoing support. Community and school strategies that help children manage divorce should have at least four elements. They will help children maintain strong ties to both other children and adults. They will strengthen parents and help parents create lasting ties to other parents. They will engage fathers in children's lives. And they will furnish both children and parents opportunities to talk about and make sense of the experience of divorce.


Given that children from divorced families are likely to tumble through various family arrangements, it is hard to exaggerate the importance of anchors in their lives--children and adults outside of their families who are caring and attentive over time. Some communities and schools are now seeking to both deepen and extend children's involvement with other children and adults.

For example, many large high schools across the country are creating more personal environments within schools--environments where children spend the bulk of their day with the same group of teachers and student--by clustering teachers and students, for example, or by creating schools within schools or "houses" within schools. Multigrade classrooms--classrooms where children stay with the same teacher for two or even three years--enable teachers to deepen their involvement with children. Some high schools now have "advisory" periods each day--a time where students are able to surface a wide array of concerns. Often the same teacher runs these advisory periods with the same group of students all four years of high school. Reducing teacher turnover and turnover among daycare providers--difficult as these tasks may be--can similarly give children greater ballast and a deeper faith in the solidity of adults. Reducing classroom size and recruiting volunteers who free up teachers' teachers' time can heighten responsiveness to individual children. Sometimes even a small amount of empathy and responsiveness can make a critical difference. Fred Louis skids out of school in part because he has no sustained connection to an adult at school.

Schools cannot support kids and parents alone: they need to work in tandem with a wide array of community organizations and services. Mentoring programs, for example, can be crucial sources of support and affirmation. Unfortunately, as Mark Freedman demonstrates in his book, The Kindness of Strangers, in most current mentoring programs relationships are short-lived; adults lose interest or are tied up by other demands, say, or adults or children move--an experience that can widen the cracks in a child's basic faith that mentoring is supposed to narrow. If mentoring programs are to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, they need to recruit adults who are able to make long-term commitments to children.


Strengthening both custodial mothers and absent fathers encompasses many strategies, including improving both the quantity and quality of child care, creating part-time work opportunities and flexible hours and developing family-friendly management training. Currently, parent and family support programs are burgeoning across the country, many of which are linked to schools. They are also unburdening parents by providing various services--such as parent skills and job information classes--and by strengthening ties among parents. While these programs are promising, they remain scattered. City governments need to provide these supports through schools and other community institutions.

Children also need their fathers, and programs are helping fathers overcome the various inner and outer obstacles that drive them away from their children after a divorce. Here, too, the basic public institutions need to engage fathers. Schools, for example, need to involve non-custodial fathers in their children's school activities. Extending the school day and offering evening activities at school will further expand opportunities for fathers to involve themselves in their children's education. Because so many children live with stepfathers or their mothers' partners, schools also need help in the complex task of determining how best to engage the various men who may be important to a child.

Because divorce is so deeply unfathomable to children, because it renders them so helpless, because they are so likely to feel rejected and disillusioned, it is critical that children have opportunities to talk to adults who are able to help make this experience comprehensible. As Hertzel points out, school staff need to be trained to develop rituals and non-intrusive ways of letting children know that the staff know a divorce has occurred and are available to talk about it. School staff also need to recognize when a child needs to talk to a counselor or social worker. Health care providers and many others who work with children need to be similarly sensitized to the problems of divorce and given rudimentary training in how to talk to kids about it. Groups for children in the midst of divorce and groups for children who are having difficulties with stepparents are cropping up in some schools and offer other useful opportunities for children to come to terms with non-traditional family arrangements. Because for many children, like Fred, the worst consequences of divorce are delayed, it is vital to create ongoing opportunities for children to make sense of the experience rather than only reaching out to children in the immediate wake of a divorce.

The happy irony is that many of the things that will help children after a divorce--such as supporting parents and including fathers in their children's education--will not encourage people to divorce; they will help families stay together. These various community supports thus serve two key aims of any sound family policy--keeping families together and keeping children in one piece when their families come apart.

You may also like