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Kids and Divorce

by Linda Lyons

Are the effects of divorce on children devastating or empowering? Do kids fall apart or adjust? Most academic research in the last 30 years has found that children suffer considerable long-term damage when their parents split up. A new book, For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, by E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, suggests that the psychological effect of divorce on children may not be as bad as commonly thought. The authors say that 75% of the children of divorced parents are resilient and go on to lead productive lives complete with satisfying relationships.

The question of how divorce affects children may be difficult to answer, but Gallup research shows that the high divorce rate of their parents has not lessened teens' disapproval of divorce or reduced teens' desires to ultimately get married and have children.

One thing is certain -- teens think it's too easy for adults to get a divorce (see chart above). Gallup Youth Survey trends dating back to 1981 indicate that a solid majority of American teens (more than 75% in most measurements) has consistently felt that way.

Despite a divorce rate that hovered around 50% through much of the late 20th century, teens overwhelmingly still want to marry and have children. Since 1977, Gallup has been asking teens, "Do you think you will get married some day or do you think you will remain single?" More than 80% of respondents have consistently answered that they plan to get married. In Gallup's most recent survey (February 2001), fully 93% of teens said they want to marry. And surprisingly, in a country where, according to a 2001 study, only six out of 10 (59%) teens live with both parents, the desire to have children is on the rise. A "yes" response to the question, "If you do get married, would you like to have children, or not?" has steadily increased from 81% in 1981 to 91% in 2001. Teens' demographic characteristics, such as race and sex, have little impact on their unswerving interest in marriage and children.

Education may play a role in maintaining kids' strong interest in marriage. Veteran teacher Marline Pearson, in her report, Can Kids Get Smart About Marriage, written for the National Marriage Project™, notes, "Increasingly, public officials are turning to marriage and relationship education as one way to strengthen marriage and prevent divorce. Florida is the first state in the nation to require a course in relationships and marriage for all high school graduates. Elsewhere in the nation, teachers and others who work with school-age children are incorporating units on healthy relationships into existing curricula or offering marriage and relationship courses as electives." (Gallup conducted a survey of adults for the National Marriage Project; see the January Tuesday Briefing article, I Do? Marriage in Uncertain Times, for more information on these results.)

Another factor may be the expectation among young people that they will marry somewhat later in life than their forebears. According to the U.S. Census, the average age of marriage now is 27 for men and 25 for women -- an increase of nearly five years since the 1960s. With less social pressure to marry at an early age, teens may feel they have more freedom to wait until they're emotionally and economically prepared for marriage.

But whether it's coursework, the determination to reverse a trend that created turmoil in many of their parents' lives, or just the universal optimism of youth, American teens remain largely united in their resolve to build successful marriages and family life.

*Findings for the latest survey covering this topic are based on telephone interviews with a representative sample of 501 American teen-agers, ages 13 to 17. Interviews were conducted December 2000 through February 2001. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ± 5 percentage points.

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