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Resurrecting the Murphy Brown Debate

March 25, 1993|BOB SIPCHEN

Please read the following statement and select the appropriate response:

"If current trends continue, less than half of all children born today will live continuously with their own mother and father throughout childhood."

A) Like . . . so?

B) Yee haw! Down with the bonds of familial slavery.

C) I'll ask Dad next time he calls. He's skating across Europe.

D) Bummer! That will be a major drag for kids and for America.

According to the April Atlantic Monthly, the correct answer is D.

But don't bother to chide the magazine for the faux pas of resurrecting last year's Murphy Brown debate. It's already thumbing its nose at the cultural elite, bill-boarding the article's gauche title right there on the cover: "Dan Quayle Was Right."

Written by researcher Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the article tracks the breakdown of the traditional American family, from the 1950s, when only 11% of children saw their parents separate or divorce, till now, when a million kids a year watch mom and dad split up, and the chances of success for marriages are about 50-50.

In the 1970s, when divorce really started booming, it was assumed that it would affect children "like a bad cold," Whitehead says.

As it happens, the illness is much more severe and recovery much less quick and complete than predicted, she asserts, supporting her common sense argument with heaps of statistics.

Children born into single-parent homes fare even worse.

One study, for example, shows that more than 70% of juveniles in state reform institutions come from fatherless homes. Whitehead adds that even after factoring in such issues as poverty, most experts "consistently point to family breakup as the most important source of rising rates of crime."

She also cites studies demonstrating that single parenthood greatly increases the likelihood that children will grow up poor and welfare-dependent, and will continue the cycle. Among whites, teen-age daughters of single parents are 111% more likely than others to have children.

The article also explores such fascinating questions as why the children of widows fare better than those of single moms or divorced moms, and why step-families often tend to be worse than a single-parent family.

"Given its dramatic impact on children's lives, one might reasonably expect that this historic level of family disruption would be viewed with alarm, even regarded as a national crisis," Whitehead writes.

Instead, she continues, those who sound the alarm are dismissed as "declinists, pessimists, or nostalgists, unwilling or unable to accept the new facts of life."

Rather, "increasingly, the media depicts the married two-parent family as a source of pathology."

As Whitehead sees it, the matter can be traced back to the 1970s, when society began to flip-flop on its notion of responsibility. Divorce, which "had once been regarded as hostile to children's best interests was now considered essential to adults' happiness."

Much of the world is experiencing familial breakup. But nowhere has it "been greeted by a more triumphant rhetoric of renewal than in America . . . "

That rhetoric draws on classic themes, on the nation's founding myth, Whitehead says.

"It depicts family breakup as a drama of revolution and rebirth. The nuclear family represents the corrupt past, an institution guilty of the abuse of power and the suppression of individual freedom."

There is, of course, a chicken-egg aspect that Whitehead cannot be expected to completely reconcile.

Is the spiraling rate of divorce and single parenthood a symptom of increasingly shallow, selfish and screwy people--in which case, these folks' kids would be pretty messed-up, divorce or not? Or does the relaxation of social constraints against divorce and single parenthood dramatically accelerate the rush to such screwed-up behavior?

There are also some serious problems with Whitehead's view.

The author does society no good when she bolsters her case by subtly chiding children's books that encourage kids to look on the bright side of familial rearrangements with such comments as: "Belonging to a step family means there are more people in your life."

And her argument implicitly encourages intolerance, not only of divorce as a societal norm, but, by implication, of individuals who make that tough decision to split up.

But strong communities are supportive when their members struggle, right?

Overall, though, this article is potent medicine for an ailing culture. The facts are sugarcoated with good quotes--"Each divorce is the death of a small civilization"--and the argument builds forcefully to this sobering conclusion:

"Family diversity in the form of increasing numbers of single-parent and step-parent families does not strengthen the social fabric. It dramatically weakens and undermines society . . . These new families are not an improvement on the nuclear family, nor are they even just as good, whether you look at outcomes for children or outcomes for society as a whole."

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