The Kids May Not Be All Right

Moviemakers may like us to believe that “The Kids Are All Right,” but global evidence to the contrary is mounting.

Mitch Pearlstein, a former officer in the department of Education and now the president of the Center for the American Experiment in Minneapolis, has been gathering the results of family research from all over the world for a long time and has compiled the data in his latest book, From Family Collapse to America’s Decline (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011). What he has found is that “family fragmentation”—today’s preferred term for “out-of-wedlock births, churning relationships, separation, and divorce—is the source of a lot of the deep problems facing America.  Children in these situations are at a much higher risk of a whole host of maladies: medical, economic, social and educational. Pearlstein’s thesis is that the economic weakness shown by the United States, as well as the growing failure of people at the bottom of the economic rungs to move up, are largely (though not completely) attributable to the breakdown of the family.

What makes Pearlstein so convincing is that he has looked at data gathered by social scientists over the past 60 years not only in the United States but around the world. What he has seen is that American marriage is in bad shape (which many of us admit), and that American kids largely pay for it (which many of us hate to admit).  Part of the reason why the American education system keeps failing has to do with the fact that schools often have to assume parental responsibilities that are most naturally and effectively executed by two-parent families in the home.

Family research findings

What is so astonishing in the early chapters of his book is the history of family research.  Just as legal changes were making divorce and single parenthood “easier” (easy for parents, that is) and more accepted, the data was already showing that kids were suffering more.  And yet, it wasn’t until the 1990s that admitting this was acceptable.  By that time, all of the changes had been wrought, and now we’ve seen nearly two generations of children who have been put at great risk—and have too often suffered for it.

It is clear—and Pearlstein is at pains to say it—that he understands that “stuff happens” and that men, women and children who are put in tough situations need support.  But in the effort to avoid demonizing people in tough situations, we shouldn’t encourage them.  In law and in social life we need to bet on the situation that is best for children:  mothers and fathers married and living together.

Neutralizing the role of “parent”    

Pearlstein does lightly touch on the movement for same-sex marriage and how it relates to his own thesis in his book.  What his studies have shown is not that children are not simply better off with any two adults:

. . . I would also argue that one of the unfortunate byproducts of the campaign for same-sex marriage is that commentators of all sorts often work overtime at avoiding words like “mother” or “father” when they can get by with the safer and all-encompassing “parents” instead. It’s as if they fear supporters of same-sex marriage—be they gay or straight—are apt to be offended by the more gender-based terms, so they neutralize the two by generically combining them.  Glossing over and sometimes denying the distinctive and vital contributions of men-as-fathers and women-as-mothers is an unfortunate idea whose time should not have arrived but has. [Emphasis added]

I often hear the claim that we don’t have much data showing that kids raised by same-sex parents are worse off or “harmed.” This may be true given the small number of such children and the newness of the phenomenon. Yet, this was the same argument given when no-fault-divorce and other legal “innovations” were being put forth. Given the massive amount of information we do have on the critical importance of “women-as-mothers” and “men-as-fathers,” what we get from studies like Pearlstein’s is a warning about gambling with family structures that have already been shown to be something more than simply culturally conditioned curiosities. In fact, since Pearlstein’s book has come out, yet another peer-reviewed study has been released showing that, across cultures, the differences in personality traits between the sexes is larger than previously thought. What we need are not generic parents, but married moms and dads.

Other situations may occasionally be necessary, but to encourage them both socially and in law is not going to make the kids all right.

N.B. I reviewed From Family Collapse to America’s Decline more fully elsewhere, but it deserved some attention on this blog. 

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