July 5, 2003
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
"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
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
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
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