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Changing American Families: Essay, Research Paper

The children are leaving for school just as father grabs his briefcase and is off to

work. Meanwhile, mother finishes clearing the breakfast dishes and continues on with

her day filled with PTA, housework, and the preparation of a well-balanced meal

to be enjoyed by all when father gets home promptly at 6:00 p.m. This would have to be a

scene from “Father Knows Best”, Leave It to Beaver” or that of a family during or

before the sixties. Only a small minority of contemporary families fit the mold of being

a “nuclear” family today.

Until about the 1960’s most Americans shared a common set of beliefs about

family life, a family should consist of a husband and a wife living together with their

children. The father being the head of the family, earns the family’s income, and gives his

name to his wife and children. Today, we exhibit a pattern of disruptions in marriages

and family structure, including single parent families and high rates of divorce.

Certainly divorce has to be stressful for our nation’s children and adolescents,

leading the American family and the nation’s future to a state of crisis. It is startling that

whether through their parents’ divorce or never having been married, nearly every other

American child spends part of his or her childhood in a single-parent family. The increase

in the proportion of children living with just one parent has strongly effected large

numbers of children. By the time they reach age sixteen, close to half the children of

Dobyns 2

married parents will have seen their parents divorce. For nearly half of these, it will be

five years or more before their mothers remarry. Close to half of all white children whose

parents remarry will see the second marriage dissolve during their adolescence.


With all of this, family matters get complicated very fast. Let’s take the instance

of Jarred and Cassie, brother and sister. Their parents, Larry and Nori get a divorce.

Larry moves in with and marries Crista who already has two boys. Nori meets James,

who is divorced and has a daughter. When Nori and James get married, Jarred and Cassie

now have a mother, a father, a stepmother, a stepfather, two stepbrothers, a stepsister and

four sets of grandparents, both biological and step.

A recent long-term study conducted by Princeton University found that

elementary school children from divorced families, especially boys, on average scored

lower on reading and math tests, were absent more often, were more anxious, hostile,

withdrawn and were less popular with their peers than their classmates from healthy

?nuclear? family environments. In later life, adults who grew up in divorced homes are

more likely than others to tell investigators that they are unhappy, in poor health and

dissatisfied with their lives. Men from divorced families are 35% more likely and women

60% more likely than their ?intact-family? counterparts to get divorced or separated.


Dobyns 3

From my research, an example of insecurities in a child shows when he or she

asks their father every couple of months or so, “Are you and mommy getting a

divorce?”, this most definantly shows the extent of worry in the child. (Brokaw) Also

just seeing the distress of friends whose parents are splitting apart makes the child scared

of the humiliating situation.

“The complexity of families has reached astounding proportions,” says Frank

Furstenberg, University of Pennsylvania sociologist. A child who lives in such

circumstances finds it very difficult to reckon who are his “kin-folk” and whether or not

the people that he counts as kin can be counted upon in times of need. (Kantrowitz)

Divorces can also mean that men and women with executive or professional

careers putting in 40 plus hours a week, plus travel and home worries don’t have enough

time for family. And so children are not left with “quality time” which means little time

from parents and with what sociologist Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University

calls “quality phone calls such as “Honey, I won’t be home. I love you.” Though the

intent is not to neglect the child, this can turn out to be neglect in effect. The worry is,

what does this do to the children? It of course means that children can feel unvalued and


It’s easy to neglect things that mean a lot to the children and it shows when they

ask, “Why didn’t you come to my school play? Oh, you had to work? Do we really need

that much money?” It means that the parents are not around to participate in the

thousands of daily interactions that make up a child’s intellectual, moral and emotional

education. So unless the child is a latchkey kid, babysitters or daycare are left to fill in

Dobyns 4

the voids as well as they are able and willing. (Etzioni)

Socializing children, restraining their impulses, awakening their faculties,

encouraging their talents and forming their values all takes time. Parents who don’t do so

run the risk that their kids will not achieve all they can and are twice as likely to drop out

of high school as kids that get to spend quality time with their parents. What’s more,

Harvard law professor, Mary Ann Glendon argues that, “Middle-and upper-income

people who don’t spend a lot of time with their kids are not teaching them how members

of a community live together and respect each other’s rights. When parents put personal

goals ahead of family, how will kids learn the opposite?” (Glendon) Families are the

institution in which character is formed and what kinds of characters are being forged,

what kinds of citizens are being molded to carry on our society, when our principal

socializing institution has had so much parental time withdrawn from it.

Several studies have also found disquieting character distortions in children from

well-educated, middle-class divorced families. Many are withdrawn and lonely, many

others while gregarious and popular, choose their friends for the status they confer,

manipulate them and can’t keep them for long. It is worrisome also, to wonder about the

ultimate consequences of fatherhood’s decline. Says Glendon: “Will a man who hasn’t

had a father know how to be a father?” (Glendon) And it is disturbing that the family life

of so many otherwise privileged children is so thin and unnourishing a medium for the

cultivation of sturdy souls.

A National Center for Health Statistics study found that children from single

parent homes were 100% to 200% more likely than children from two parent families to

have emotional and behavioral problems and about 50% more likely to have learning

Dobyns 5

disabilities. In the nation’s hospitals, over 80% of adolescents admitted for psychiatric

reasons come from single-parent families. (Smith)

No scale can measure the deepest wounds of divorce for children and impressive

recent research suggests they are wounds that never heal. Psychologist Judith

Wallerstein, who for 15 years has intimately followed 130 children of divorce was

shocked by the extent of the harm she found, not just right after the divorce but years

later. Wallerstein had at first assumed that an unhappy marriage must be unhappy for

children too. While they would feel pain at the divorce, they would also feel relief and

would be just fine as time passed and their parents grew happier. This was found to be

untrue, she was amazed at the intensity of the pain and fear that engulfed these kids when

their parents split up. “The first reaction is one of pure terror,” says Wallerstein. Though

most were middle-class children of executives and professionals, they worried who was

going to feed and care for them. Preschool children feared that now that one parent had

abandoned the other, both would abandon the child leaving him unprotected in a scary


It is reasonable to ask, ?Are the bad consequences of divorce really caused by

divorce itself or by the family disharmony that precipitated the split?? Even though most

boys were bright, after their parents’ divorce many of the boys in Wallerstein’s study

started having learning and behavior trouble in school, in adolescence and young

adulthood a significant number began to drift. By young adulthood, both boys and girls

from divorced families were having difficulty forming close and loving relationships.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, since 1990 there

has been a steady increase in the number of children from single parent families resulting

Dobyns 6

from divorce having learning disabilities and emotional and behavioral problems.


Over the past several decades, the tragedy of parental neglect of children due to

divorce is reflective of the plagues in our society where young adults are highly involved:

Teenage pregnancy, criminality, youth violence, and drug abuse to name only a few.

Furthermore, day by day they are rising to a wider portion of the society. They lack

constructive social support that should promote their education and health. They have

very few models of competence. They are bereft of visible economic opportunity. As a

result of their parents’ inability to preserve their marriage, the result of the epidemic

revolution of divorce, remarriage and divorce again has deeply affected the hearts and

minds of American children.

The fate of these young people is not merely a tragedy for them, it affects the

entire nation. ?A growing fraction of our potential work force consists of seriously

disadvantaged people who will have little if any prospect of acquiring the

skills necessary to revitalize the economy? (Wallerstein). If we cannot bring ourselves

to feel compassion for these young people on a personal level, we must at least recognize

that our economy and our society will suffer along with them.

In conclusion, with the research and information we now have, it makes one look

back to the Norman Rockwell paintings of families of yesteryear and realize the

?nuclear? or ?model? family was something very special and precious that rarely exists in

today?s society. Wouldn?t it be wonderful if every child could experience that kind of

family happiness and harmony, never having to taste the bitterness of divorce?

Dobyns 7

Brokaw, Tom. “New Realities of Changing Families,” Good Housekeeping, Oct 98, Vol. 221 Issue 4, p106.

Congressman, William D. Ford, Annual Publication, September 1998.

Etzioni, Amitai. “The Day Care Generation,” George Washington Review, Winter/ Spring 1997.

Glendon, Mary Ann. “Family in Western Law” 1987, p 117.

Hamburg, David. “The New Family” Current, Jul/Aug 1996 Issue, p59.

Kantrowitz, Barbara. “Step by Step” Newsweek, Winter/ Spring 1992.

Smith, Brian. FAMILY: ?Children in Crisis” Fortune, Vol. 116, Issue 3, Aug 95, p42, p6.

Wallerstein, Judith, “Variations in theme” Newsletter, March 1998.

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