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July 5, 2003
Column #1,140

Parents Declare Independence From Their Children

     RENO, Nevada Ironically, at a "Smart Marriages Conference" held in the divorce capital of the United States, I learned how thoroughly America's passion for freedom and independence has led to a stunning abandonment of children by their own parents.

     For thousands of years, a primary purpose of marriage was to unite men and women in the shared tasks of raising children. Sadly, that vision has eroded dramatically according to Drs. David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, who delivered their fifth annual "The State of Our Unions" report last week (see:

     "Since 1960, there has been an 850 percent increase in the number of cohabiting couples who live with children," they report. "An estimated 40 percent of all children today are expected to spend some time in a cohabiting couple household during their growing up years."

     To put it differently, a child is almost as likely to live in a home where the parents have not made full commitment to each other or to that child - as he/she is to live with married parents! Census reported recently that 43 percent of cohabiting parents have a child under age 18 vs. only 46 percent of married couples.

     Half of new marriages still end in divorce a huge trend separating marriage and parenthood. A million children each year experience parental divorce.

     "As a consequence of these combined forces, 69 percent of all children are living with two married parents compared to 85 percent as recently as 1970. Only 38 percent of black children live with two married parents, compared to 58 percent in 1970," according to Popenoe and Whitehead, who direct the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

     Further, Americans are much less likely to marry. The marriage rate has plunged more than 40 percent since 1970. One would think that as divorces soared, and more than half of those who marry lived together first - that the marriages which survived would be happier ones. However, the percentage of couples who say their marriages are "very happy" has declined about 10 percent since 1973.

     From a child's perspective, more than half lived with "very happy" parents thirty years ago, but only 37 percent are so fortunate today.

     Popenoe and Whitehead tried to put an upbeat face on this grim data. They note the percentage of children with two married parents inched up one percent in recent years, from 68 to 69 percent. More encouraging, the percentage of black children with married parents increased from 34 to 38 percent from 1996-2002. And black unwed births dropped slightly from 70.4 to 68.5 percent.

     However, these are minor changes, masking the fact that a growing percentage of children live with stepparents, which can be downright dangerous for children. A preschooler living with one biological parent and a stepparent is 40 times more likely to be sexually abused than one living with two natural parents.

     What's most devastating for kids is the abandonment of them by their fathers. The proportion of children who do not live with their biological fathers has doubled since 1960 from 17 to 34 percent.

     More men are "having more children out of wedlock, cohabiting rather than marrying, and divorcing in large numbers," or foregoing marriage altogether, according to the report. Eighteen percent of men aged 35 to 44 have never married, nearly triple the percent in 1970.

     On the other hand, many more dads are actively participating in child rearing - from changing diapers to taking kids to pediatricians. However, as America celebrates Independence Day, millions of men have declared independence from their own children.

     The key to this divergent pattern is marriage, the social glue that bonds fathers to their offspring. Nearly 70 percent of Americans disagree with the statement that "the main purpose of marriage is having children," while only 45 percent of Italians concur. An astonishing 94 percent of single Americans in their twenties believe a spouse should be "your soul mate, first and foremost."

     This unrealistic notion makes marriage both more rare and more fragile. Not long ago, most Americans believed parents had an obligation to stay together "for the sake of the children," but only 15 percent now agree.

     Sadly, the consequence is the average American child reports more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s. Twice as many college students sought treatment for depression in 2000 as in 1989. A study of youth suicide reveals the "increased share of youths living in homes with a divorced parent" explains two-thirds of the increase in youth suicides.

     It is time for all American parents to take responsibility for their children.

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