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What children really think about divorce PDF Print E-mail
(1 Vote)
Written by Maureen Freely   

Does divorce harm children? For 20 years now, concerned experts have been telling us it does. Children who come from broken families are more likely to live below the poverty line and less likely to do well at school. They suffer more from depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. More of them become juvenile delinquents, drug addicts or teenage mothers. They concede there are "many exceptions", but insist that children do best when their parents stay together. Even when married parents are in open conflict, their children do better than children whose parents divorce amicably.

None of this is news. And yet we still have one of the highest divorce rates in Europe. This suggests that we are faced with a complex phenomenon that cannot be remedied by a diet of sermons. Divorce and separation are facts of modern life. Millions of children already live in post-divorce families and many millions more will do so in the near future.

So the questions we should be asking are not "Does divorce damage children?" but "How does divorce damage children, and when do they do better?" To this end, researchers Bryan Rodgers and Jan Pryor have developed a "risk and resiliency" model that looks at children and divorce in a radical new way. They look not just at the immediate aftermath of divorce, but at the wider picture and the long term. One of their most striking findings, though, has been that almost no studies on divorce have ever sought the views of children. According to Professor Priscilla Alderson of the Institute of Education at the University of London, this oversight has to do with deep-seated cultural views on children: we like to think of childhood as a "happy little state", which means that children need "protecting" from the nasty realities of adult life.

Alderson, whose previous research has involved children making decisions about their medical treatment, takes a different view. When children have a chance to exercise their judgment, she says, they show a highly developed sense of fairness. What's more, they are "very conscious of their parents' anxieties. They are tolerant, forgiving and loyal." Where there is a conflict between parents, be it during a medical emergency or during a divorce, "they tend to refuse to take sides".

Most seem eager to offer their thoughts, provided they feel comfortable with the people who are interviewing them and know they are speaking in confidence. In a new report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which surveyed 460 children from different family backgrounds, including nearly 250 children from stepfamilies, its co-author Professor Judy Dunn, of King's College London, found that a major problem at the time of divorce or separation was poor communication - not between the adults, but with the children. A quarter said that no one had talked to them, and only 5% felt fully informed and free to ask questions.

Many missed their non-resident parent, usually their father, and wanted to see more of him. There was distress if he was prone to let them down. Many were unhappy with their contact arrangements. For example, one boy wanted to see his father on weekends, not school nights, so that they could do more together.

Where children felt they could renegotiate these things openly, and talk to both parents about their problems, they were much more likely to be positive about living in two households. Where they were close to their grand parents - and able to confide in them at the time of divorce - they were less likely to show signs of anxiety or aggression, or run into problems at school. They also did better if they were close to their fathers and stepfathers, and if they were able to keep in touch with their friends.

All this sounds obvious if you are caring for real children. Their family and social networks matter to them. If they don't have good relations with the important people in their lives, they do not thrive. My guess is that most parents bringing up children outside marriage are aware of this. How much they are able to act on this knowledge depends on how emotionally overwhelmed they are, how they parent, and what sort of guidance and support they get from friends, family and outside agencies.

What matters most is how they frame the problem. If people take the old-fashioned "protectionist" view that divorce is damaging and damns everyone from the start, they are not going to be looking for ways of making it better. If parents and all who work with post-divorce children are to take a more positive stance, they need a new set of principles to guide them. This is what Bren Neale and Carol Smart set out in a new publication they will be presenting today at a conference sponsored by the universities of Leeds and of London, and the children's charity Young Voice.

Their study - based on in-depth interviews with 52 children and young people - echoes all the themes of Dunn's research. What matters to children is not the shape of the households within which they live, but the quality of their family and social relationships. Children across the board seem to manage difficult changes better if they live in households that practise what they call "democratic parenting" or "family citizenship". They define this as "balancing care and protection with respect and participation". This style of parenting is especially beneficial to children during a divorce.

It does not take the pain away. Divorce, says Neale, is always "an enormous challenge". But she insists that it can be managed well, and usually without legal or professional interventions. Children, she says, are good at cooperation and compromise when given the chance. As a rule, they want their parents to make the big decisions for them. But children also want to be "listened to, taken seriously, informed" and consulted.

They might not need to know the full extent of their parents' miseries, but they do want to know about what Judy Dunn calls "the basic architecture of their lives". Who's going to take them to school on Wednesday and where they'll be at Christmas. They do not see themselves as victims or objects: many talk with pride about helping their parents. They're upset when their parents fight in front of them, use them as pawns or expect them to take sides. All they want is for everyone to try.

At the time of a divorce, courts and other outside agencies often enter the equation and may well decide how and where children live. From the Lord Chancellor's department down, these institutions also need to think in terms of "family citizenship"; as yet they remain entrenched in the outmoded "protectionism" of the past. Starting at the grassroots, however, Neale, Dunn and Alderson have a more positive outlook. They point out that "democratic parenting" is already at least a partial reality in many households. But as you read the children's interviews - and their requests are heart-breakingly modest and practical - you can't help but ask why no one thought to consult them before.


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