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National Observer Home > No. 52 - Autumn 2002 >Articles

The Case for the Family: Part 1

Bill Muehlenberg


For centuries, the biological family with mother and father was viewed as the appropriate and necessary structure for raising children and undergirding society. Indeed, both historical and universally, the natural family has been the norm. But today the two-parent family is not only viewed by some as a relic of a past age, but is even seen as hindering the development of a fully enlightened and liberated society. Radical feminists and the gay lobby are but two groups which are bent on undermining or recasting the traditional family.

Society, especially the entertainment world, tries to convince us that the path to self-fulfillment and liberation lies in renouncing all moral and religious restraints. Freedom to choose, regardless of moral constraints, is the current wisdom. But does such licence really produce freedom? And what about our children? Are all lifestyles of equal worth in their impact on children?

A number of recent studies would suggest that in fact not all lifestyle options are good for children. Indeed, it is becoming clear that the overall well-being of children – and adults – is best served in the context of the traditional two-parent home.

Armand Nicholi, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school who has studied for over forty years the consequences of parental absence and children’s well-being has concluded: “What has been shown over and over again to contribute most to the emotional development of the child is a close, warm, sustained and continuous relationship with both parents.” 1  Nicholi goes on to observe: 2 

“One other comment about his research. In addition to the magnitude of it, the studies taken as a whole paint an unmistakably clear picture of the adverse effects of parental absence. Yet this vast body of research is almost totally ignored by our society. Why have even the professionals tended to ignore this research? Perhaps the answer is, to put it most simply, because the findings are unacceptable . . . Attitudes which now prevail toward parental absence resemble those once prevalent toward cigarette smoking. For decades Americans ignored the large body of research concerning the adverse effects of cigarette smoke. We had excellent studies for decades before we began to respond to the data. Apparently as a society, we refuse to accept data that demands a radical change in our lifestyle.”

Similar comments could be made about the situation in Australia. We were earlier told that all household arrangements are equally viable, and no ideal form of the family exists. The evidence for the two-parent family, which is substantial indeed, was simply not being heard. It is clear that the information, while not being reported, is there. Perhaps to argue for intact families would mean an unacceptable requirement to rethink lifestyle choices.

However a recent change in understanding should be noted. Social commentator Bettina Arndt has over the last few years publicly changed her mind on this issue. Also, Bryan Rodgers of the Australian National University has recently re-examined the Australian research. After twenty-five studies, he found that some studies contained methodological shortcomings, and suggested that taken together, these studies do indeed show that children suffer as a result of parental divorce. Rodgers states: 3 

“Australian studies with adequate samples have shown parental divorce to be a risk factor for a wide range of social and psychological problems in adolescence and adulthood, including poor academic achievement, low self-esteem, psychological distress, delinquency and recidivism, substance use and abuse, sexual precocity, adult criminal offending, depression, and suicidal behaviour . . . There is no scientific justification for disregarding the public health significance of marital dissolution in Australia, especially with respect to mental health.”

John Embling, from the Melbourne-based Families in Distress Foundation, also is well aware of the harmful effects on children of parental breakup. He echoes Nicholi’s comments that we do not want to face the facts on this issue: “A lot of people who set up the social agenda and work in the media in this country are middle-class intellectuals living the lifestyles we are talking about. They do not want to address these issues because it makes them personally uncomfortable.” 4 

The adverse effects of parental absence have been demonstrated by a vast body of research. As Professor David Popenoe of Rutgers University puts it: 5

“Social science research is almost never conclusive. There are always methodological difficulties and stones left unturned. Yet in three decades of work as a social scientist, I know of few other bodies of data in which the weight of evidence is so decisively on one side of the issue: on the whole, for children, two-parent families are preferable to single-parent families and step-families. If our prevailing views on family structure hinged solely on scholarly evidence, the current debate would never have arisen in the first place.”

I. Single-Parent Families

To highlight the importance of the two-parent family is not to denigrate those who find themselves often through no fault of their own in the position of being single-parents. Because of the death or desertion of a spouse for, example, many single-parents find themselves valiantly seeking to raise their children as best they can. We can only support and encourage such single-parents in every possible manner. But those who deliberately choose to bring up children without a spouse are doing so at great risk to both themselves and their children.

This is not to say that two-parent families are always without vice and single-parent families are always without virtue. One can always find exceptions where single-parent families out-perform two-parent families. But these are indeed the exceptions. What is clear is that there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that the best way to ensure the healthy development of children is in the setting of the biological two-parent family. By a number of indicators, children from intact, stable two-parent families will do much better than children from broken homes of single-parent families.

By way of summary of the data that is to follow, American family expert William Galston, who served in the Clinton Administration (1996-2000), should be noted: 6

“Correcting for the effects of both income loss and pre-divorce conflict between parents, divorce in (non-abusive) cases has an independent, negative effect on the well-being of minor children along a number of key dimensions: school performance, high-school completion, college attendance and graduation, labor-force attachment and work patterns, depression and other psychological illnesses, crime, suicide, out-of-wedlock births, and the propensity to become divorced.”

II. The Effects of Family Breakdown

Princeton University Professor of Sociology Sara McLanahan has examined the various studies on the welfare of children from various family backgrounds. She has especially focused on the effects of divorce on children. This is how she summarises the research conducted over the last several decades: 7 

“Until the early 1980’s many analysts as well as lay persons believed that divorce had no negative consequences for children, beyond the temporary stress associated with family disruption. This belief emerged during the 1970’s, when divorce rates were at their peak, and legitimated the new ideology that children’s interests are best served when their parents pursue their own personal happiness. Since 1980 a number of studies based on large, nationally representative surveys have challenged this view by showing that divorce is associated with a number of long-term negative outcomes in children. While there is not definite proof that divorce itself causes lower attainment in children, there are good theoretical reasons for believing that it reduces the quantity and quality of parental investment, which in turn reduces the children’s well-being.”

McLanahan goes on to list some of the studies mentioned. Such research indicates that “children from mother-only families obtain fewer years of education and are more likely to drop out of high school than offspring from intact families”; are more likely to have “lower educational attainment and lower socioeconomic status”; are more likely to “marry early and have children early, both in and out of wedlock”; and are more likely to “commit delinquent acts and to engage in drug and alcohol use”.

Findings from the National Longitude Study on Adolescent Health in the United States show similar results. The study, based on a survey of 90,118 adolescents, looked at issues such as violence, emotional health, substance use and sexuality. The researchers found that “with notable consistency across the domains of risk, the role of parents and families in shaping the health of adolescents is evident”. 8 

A summary of Australian research yields similar conclusions. Two psychiatrists reviewed twenty-five Australian studies of outcomes in children from separated and intact families. Children of divorce were more likely to have “nervous and mental disorders, poor self-control, and lower reading skill in primary school-aged children; delinquency, recidivism and poor education achievement in the teenage years. Other outcomes included neurotic disorders, attempted suicide, alcoholism and criminal convictions in adulthood.” 9 

III. Socio/Economic Circumstances

There is a widespread agreement that single parents (usually women) and children face several economic consequences due to divorce or illegitimacy. Numerous studies have shown that single parents and their children are much worse off economically than parents and children of intact families. Here are just some of the findings.

Harvard University Professor Lenore Weitzman in her important book, The Divorce Revolution (1985), found that, on average, women with dependent children experienced a 73 per cent decline in standards of living during the first year after divorce whereas their husbands experienced a 42 per cent increase in their standard of living. She precited that a two-tier society would emerge with women and children as an underclass. (More recent studies suggest that divorced women experience a 30 per cent drop in their standard of living, as compared to a 10 to 15 per cent increase for divorced men). 10 

A 1992 work edited by Weitzman and Mavis Maclean contains more documentation on the economic hardships single-parent families endure. 11  One chapter, by Sara McLanahan (already referred to) focuses on the economic insecurity of mother-only families. After examining a number of studies on the subject, she concludes: “Mother-only families have substantially higher poverty rates than other groups . . . and children in mother-only families are much more likely to be poor than children in two-parent families, in terms of both absolute income levels and income stability.”

This “feminisation of poverty” can be spelled out in specifics. Statistics from America clearly demonstrate this. The U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1991, found that while the poverty rate for all families rose from 10.7 per cent in 1990 to 11.5 per cent in 1991, “married-couple families continued to have the lowest poverty rate (6.0 per cent in 1991)”. Moreover, mother-only families “represented 12.7 per cent of non-poor families, but 54.0 per cent of poor families in 1991”. Also, among families with dependent children, only 8.3 per cent of married couples were living below the poverty line, compared to 47.1 per cent of female-headed households.

In Australia, a recent study of 500 divorcees with children five to eight years after the separation found mothers still suffer income losses of up to 26 per cent five to eight years after divorce. 12  Moreover, figures from Monash University’s Centre for Population and Urban Research show that family break-up, rather than unemployment, is the main cause of the rise in poverty levels in Australia. 13 

Research for the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University has further demonstrated this strong link between poverty and single-parent families. As of September 1996, 43.3 per cent of poor families were headed by lone parents. 14  Recent research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that one-half of single parents are on welfare. The study showed that 52 per cent of one-parent families are living in a household where the parent is not working. 15 

When Vice-President Dan Quayle criticised television character Murphy Brown in 1992 for viewing out-of-wedlock births as just another lifestyle choice, journalists should have read the speech in which these remarks were made. In addition to quoting the above kinds of statistics, he noted the tragic situation in the black community. For example, in 1967, 68 per cent of black families were headed by married couples. In 1991 this figure dropped to only 48 per cent. In 1965, the illegitimacy rate among black families was 28 per cent. In 1989 the figure was 65 per cent.

Quayle cited other figures about poverty in broken families and then made this comment: “For those concerned about children growing up in poverty, we should know this: marriage is probably the best anti-poverty programme of all”. The evidence certainly seems to bear this out.


1. Nicholi, Armand, “The Impact of Parental Absence on Childhood Development: An Overview of the Literature”, Journal of Family and Culture, volume 1, note 3, Autumn 1985.

2. Ibid.

3. Rodgers, Bryan, “Social and Psychological Wellbeing of Children from Divorced Families: Australian Research Findings”, Australian Psychologist, volume 31, note 3, November 1995, pages 174-182.

4. Cited in Arndt, Bettina, “Social Conundrum: Is a bad marriage better than a good divorce?” The Age, 8 November 1997.

5. Popenoe, David, “The Controversial Truth”, New York Times, 26 December 1992, page A21, as quoted in Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. “Dan Quayle Was Right”, The Atlantic, April 1993, page 82.

6. Galston, William, “Divorce American Style”, The Public Interest, Summer 1996, pages 12-26.

7. McLanahan, Sara. “Intergenerational Consequences of Divorce: The United States Perspective”, in Weitzman and Maclean, eds., Economic Consequences of Divorce, Clarendon Press, 1992.

8. Resnick, Michael, et al., “Protecting Adolescents from Harm”, Journal of the American Medical Association, volume 278, note 10, 10 September 1997, page 823-832.

9. Rodgers, Bryan and Jan Pryor, “The trials of separation”, The Age, 5 December 1996, page 17.

10.Galston, William, op. cit.

11. Weitzman, Lenore J., and Maclean, Mavis, eds., Economic Consequences of Divorce, Clarendon Press, 1992.

12. Funder, Kate, et. al, Settling DownPathways of Parents After Divorce, Melbourne, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 1993.

13. Seccombe, Mike, “Break-ups: ‘the main cause of poverty’”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 September 1997, page 6.

14. Birrell, Bob and Virginia Rapson, “More single parents equals more poverty”, News Weekly, 18 October 1997, page 8.

15. Baskett, Sasha, “Half of single parents on welfare”, The Herald Sun, 20 June 2000, page 8.




National Observer No. 52 - Autumn 2002