The damage that children suffer as a result of parents splitting up is well-documented in both social studies as well as popular culture, in television, film and books. However, one new study is turning this idea on its head-at least for one of the behaviors in children most commonly associated with divorce. This is of course, misbehavior.
Allen Li, associate director of the Population Research Center at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, presented a paper at the non-profit Council on Contemporary Families conference held at the University of Illinois at Chicago concerning effects of divorce on children, using a 28-point checklist to measure the children's behavior before and after divorce.
Unlike previous studies, which compare children of divorce parents with children of married parents, Li has taken a different approach, using "before and after" analyses of the children from divorced parents to measure direct effects on behavior. The result is a study with a more controlled environment than other studies, in which differences in behavior may be a result of the married vs. divorced dichotomy, but could also be influenced by many background factors that aren't directly related to the parents' state of marriage.
From a technical standpoint, Li's work is significant because of the large sample size he used for his research-6,332 children from ages 4 to 15-and for introduction of a new analytical model for his statistics.
The checklist of behavior problems he identified includes such classic examples of bad behavior as crying, cheating and arguing frequently. Li found that there was a slight increase in bad behavior after divorce, but the increase is not statistically significant.
Many researchers on the subject are quick to fault Li's methods, including Elizabeth Marquardt, a vice president at the conservative Institute for American Values in New York. A study she published in 2005 found that an unhappy marriage without conflict is better for children than divorce.
Marquardt's study was one of those that compared children with divorced parents to children with married parents. But she defends that approach from the point of view that divorce has far-reaching effects that cannot be studied properly in isolation. She claims that Li is "controlling for so many things he's making the effects of divorce disappear."
Another expert whose research concurs with that of Li is Andrew Cherlin. His method was also to study children before and after a divorce to note changes in behavior, if any, and his conclusions were similar. He summarizes his research by saying, "Most children are not seriously affected by divorce in the long-term, but divorce raises the risk that a child will have problems."
Of course, studies like these do not necessarily apply directly to the situation of real couples who are contemplating divorce. Each family and each couple is different, and the unique dynamics of their marriage and their relationships with their kids go a long way in determining how the children will be affected by divorce.
What they should prove is that sweeping statements like "divorce will be devastating for your children" should be carefully examined in light of individual circumstances; some research backs up this claim, but other research, like that of Li and Cherlin, comes to the opposite conclusion.