According to a new study by the Centre for Social Justice, almost half of all children in the United Kingdom will see their married or cohabitating parents split up by the time they’re sixteen. Never before in Great Britain’s history has the breakdown of the family been so palpable.
Here in the United States things aren’t much different. According to a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, one in four children in the United States is being raised by a single parent. The main reason for the high U.S. figure, say the experts, is the growing acceptance of single-parent child rearing.
The question is, should there be such widespread acceptance of single-parent child rearing?
People struggle with this question for an obvious reason: just about everyone knows at least one person, if not ten, who is either a product of a single-parent household or is a single parent. Thus, Americans are reluctant to say anything disparaging about single parents. Indeed, the desire not to offend has become an epidemic in this country. When Ann Coulter pointed out in 2009 that 70% of prison inmates come from single-parent families, as do 70% of teenage runaways and drug addicts, she was accused of being insensitive. But in order to solve a problem of this magnitude, we’re going to have to step on some toes.
No-fault divorce, which Ronald Reagan admitted was “one of the worst mistakes” he ever made in office, was the beginning of the downward spiral for the American family. California, where Reagan was governor in 1969, was the first state to adopt the no-fault divorce law. It was a new concept. Dissolving a marriage on the grounds of “irreconcilable differences,” as opposed to proving fault on the part of a spouse, allows anyone to get divorced for any reason at all. Has this been a good thing for some people in some cases? Perhaps. But it has come at great cost.
We don’t talk much about peer pressure as it relates to divorce, but we should. We like to think adults are above this phenomenon; but the truth is, with so many husbands and wives — wives, mainly — relying on “irreconcilable differences” to give them the freedom they desire, it has become easy for dissatisfied couples to jump on the bandwagon. This conundrum is best explained by a study conducted by social science researcher James H. Fowler, who found that if a sibling divorces, we are 22 percent more likely to divorce ourselves. That is a shocking percentage, to be sure, but not as shocking as this: people who had a divorced friend were 147 percent more likely to get divorced than people whose friends’ marriages were intact.
This would suggest, then, that the reverse would be true as well. The more couples stay together, so too will those couples whose situations may not be so dire.
As it stands now, that is not the case. With the single-parent lifestyle being not only accepted but glorified, even hailed in some cases as empowering, Americans are being pulled in the wrong direction. Some even argue that marriage isn’t necessary at all. Since women now make their own living and people are living longer lives than ever, why not shack up or simply love each other for as long as we are able? Better yet, why not encourage women who want to be mothers to use sperm banks so they can raise children without having to, as Jennifer Aniston put it so eloquently last August, “fiddle with a man”?
In the span of just a few decades, Americans have witnessed a timeless institution become wholly progressive. The evidence compiled by the Centre for Social Justice confirmed that the sexual revolution of the 1960s marked a decisive break with 200 years of conventional family structure. Prior to the 1960s, out of wedlock births were at low levels throughout the 19th century and stayed flat. Afterward, they soared from 5% to 45%. Cohabitation levels also soared – from under 5% pre-1945 to 90% today.
In other words, baby boomers really screwed things up.
Which brings us to the question that will plague us for years: How do we reverse the trend? We know the dissolution of the nuclear family will drain our economy to the point of no return. We also know that children brought up by single parents fare worse, on average, than those brought up by married parents — and that the emotional toll on children (and parents, for that matter) cannot be quantified. That does not mean there aren’t single parents who do a great job of raising their kids or that some children of divorce don’t emerge relatively unscathed. But it does mean — much to our chagrin — that the chances are slim.
Which is why the old-fashioned concept of a Mom, a Dad, a couple of kids, and a dog is still in society’s best interest. “It is not our intention to suggest that all marriages in the past were happy and long-lasting,” says lead CSJ researcher Dr. Samantha Callan.
But the fact that a number of marriages were brutal and fleeting should not obscure the centrality of marriage to family life.
And that, of course, is the point. It’s not that divorce shouldn’t be an option — it must be — but it should also not be the norm. Today, the only requirement for the married lifestyle is that people do what makes them happy. Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps we should chuck this notion entirely and just go for contentment.
No doubt there’d be more happy children in the world.
Suzanne Venker is co-author of the new book The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know – and Men Can’t Say. Her website is www.suzannevenker.com.