Study: Children thrive in calm, two-parent households

Only 63 percent of American children grow up with both biological parents at home.
July 07, 2009

As a child, University of Minnesota junior Erin O’Brien doesn’t remember seeing her father often. Her parents fought a lot and were unhappy with each other.
O’Brien was 8 or 9 years old when she found out her parents were getting divorced. She said she is now happy her parents are separated.
“Now that I’m older, I’m glad they did because it’s not good to be married to someone that you can’t stand,” she said.
A study by University researcher Ann Meier and Kelly Musick of Cornell University found that children thrive better when they live with both biological parents, except when those parents continually argue.
“Those who grew up in conflict-ridden married-parent families didn’t do any better than those who grew up in single-parent families,” Meier said.
Meier said she does not suggest divorcing is better for the children when parents have large conflicts, but rather that they should work on conflict resolution in a healthy way.
Dr. William Doherty , a professor in the University’s Family Social Science Department , said that divorce is not always necessary.
The nation’s high divorce rate — around 50 percent — indicates that there are a lot of couples who do not really try hard enough to save a marriage, he said.
Doherty said that generally divorce is not the best option for children.
“Only the marriages with high chronic conflict in front of the children are better for the children if the parents get divorced,” he said.
Doherty said the majority of divorces are not a result of that kind of conflict, but rather a result from unhappiness with each other.
Sadie Lundquist , a journalism senior, found out at 9 years old that her parents had separated. Lundquist said her dad was emotionally abusive toward her mom and went to domestic abuse counseling through the separation.
“It had been building up and building up and then [my mom] decided this was the only way any change would happen,” Lundquist said.
Change did happen: After nine months of separation, Lundquist’s parents stayed together.
Although researchers say that children who live with both biological parents thrive better, O’Brien said she disagrees.
“It’s all about how they’re raised,” she said. “It depends how their parents react toward it.”
Only 63 percent of American children grow up with both biological parents, the lowest figure in the western world, according to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.
In 2004, Minnesota and Iowa tied for the fourth lowest divorce rate in the country, with a rate of 2.8 percent, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The lowest divorce rate was in Washington, D.C., with a rate of 1.9 percent, while the highest divorce rate was 6.4 percent in Nevada.
Doherty said there are three things that make a marriage successful: commitment, conflict management skills and priority.
“People prioritize their relationship when they’re falling in love and through getting married,” Doherty, a marriage therapist for more than 30 years, said. “But once they get into living life with busy jobs and raising children, they put their marriage on the back burner for long stretches of time, and that leads to lower levels of satisfaction and affairs.”
The number of couples who live together but don’t get married is on the rise. In 2000, about 3.8 million couples were living together unmarried; in 2007 that number jumped to 6.4 million, according to the National Marriage Project.
Doherty said the prime time to get married is when someone is in their late 20s because that is when the brain is fully mature. Finishing college is also a plus.
“It’s best to have finished the education you’re getting before you marry,” he said.
Lundquist said her parents got married when they were ages 21 and 22.
“All of their friends were the same age as them; they had a little group, and everyone else in their group has been divorced,” she said.
Being married while in college is not uncommon, however. At the University 34.6 percent of undergraduate and graduate students are married , according to Boynton ’s 2008 College Student Health Survey . A little more than 22 percent of students have dependent children, according to the same survey.
Marriage and divorce, among other things, can be the cause of stress for college students.
Getting married caused 3.2 percent of students to experience stress in the last 12 months, according to the Boynton survey, while 1.9 percent of students experienced stress because of divorce.
When children are involved in a divorce, Doherty said it is important to keep the child out of the middle of situations.
“Never use the child as a message bearer,” Doherty advises. “Never say anything critical to your child about the other parent.”

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