The most comprehensive survey so far of all the research on this area is published today by the Family Policy Studies Centre. It asks more questions than it answers, but it does suggest that a simple denunciation of single parenthood is beside the point. While some children do badly, others do not. Their fate is not predestined.
There are serious problems with much of the existing research, which in Britain is mainly based on two big studies, one of a group of children born in 1946 and the other of children born in 1958, followed through at intervals, and now also including their children.
For children growing up in those days, divorce and illegitimacy were relatively rare, so the social stigma was greater. Teachers then had lower expectations of these children, which in other research has been shown to be a dangerously self-fulfilling prophesy. Born myself in 1946, a child of two divorces, I know that it felt relatively exceptional. But classrooms everywhere now are so full of children with complicated families that it must feel very different. So some of the damage done to children by divorce and illegitimacy reported here may be the effect of a social ostracism that is out of date.
The more this report explores and compares the many (sometimes sharply conflicting) studies, the more gaping chasms open up in our understanding of the fundamental elements of family life. But it does seem without doubt that, broadly, the children of divorce and single parenthood do worse, in virtually every respect. Divorce and separation are worst of all, single parenthood and subsequent step-parenthood next, with the children of never-married mothers who stay single and widows suffering least harm.
These children do worse at reading and maths, and their parents report more anxiety and bad behaviour. They get lower educational qualifications than would have been expected for their social class, and as a result they get worse jobs later in life.
But that's not the end of the story. While no one seriously questions that happy parents who stay together are likely to produce the happiest children, this report stresses that there is so much variation within groups that it is impossible ever to predict a happy or unhappy outcome for a particular child of any background.
The research implies that the worse the parental conflict, the worse the child will do. Upheaval and disharmony matter far more than the shape of family the child is brought up in. But measuring relative rates of happiness and conflict is, to say the least, problematic.
Do we reach the limits of sociology here? A recent British Social Attitudes Survey found that six out of 10 people thought it better for the children if an unhappy marriage were ended. If unhappily married couples want to know how to do the best for their children, they need to know whether staying together unhappily produces better children than divorcing. But how do you set about measuring relative rates of unhappiness in couples who decide to stay married? As with pain thresholds, some people tolerate extreme misery in marriage, while others protest vehemently about apparently trivial levels of dissatisfaction.
The research shows that children of divorce have started to do badly long before the actual separation, and do no worse after it. That suggests that it is conflict, rather than the separation, that may do the most harm.
When people divorce, the mother and children come under unusual stress. They are nearly always much poorer than before, moving down the social scale. They often move house, and school. Half the children lose touch with their fathers for ever. Many children suffer further disruption on remarriage, not just acquiring a stepfather, but again moving house and school. Some mothers go on to have more children. Yet despite it all, some children do very well.
There is so much that needs measuring. How much does it matter how well siblings get on, or how well children get on with their parents, or with step- parents? What are the measures of 'good' relationships which protect children from suffering too much harm?
There are other small hand grenades thrown in by the report. For instance, could we be measuring the wrong causes of these children's underachievement? Do disruptive, underachieving, difficult children make the divorce of their parents more likely? Families with disabled children are more likely to fall apart, so what about families with difficult children?
The most important question is, how bad is the damage? No clear answer emerges here either, but there are indications. Reading age varies according to class, gender, birth weight and family size. One major study looked at children aged seven to 11. 'Illegitimate' children were on average found to be 10 months behind the average reading age. How bad is that? Not as bad as coming from a family with three or more siblings, when the child will be 11 months below average. Not all that unlike the natural gender difference, where girls at that age are eight months ahead of boys. In maths, the social class difference between children is nine months, while the difference between legitimate and illegitimate children is five months.
This puts the gravity of the problem into some kind of perspective. Is divorce and single parenthood the most important problem besetting children of this generation? It may predispose them to suffer all kinds of disadvantages, especially poverty, but lots of other children are poor and disadvantaged, too.
Or is there really a moral disquiet about divorce and single motherhood that goes far beyond practical concern for the children? The whole notion of marriage as the building block of a stable society runs deeper than mere calculations about outcomes for children. It includes some sense of sexual orderliness, a wish to see men as the heads of households perhaps, a desire to keep people in their proper place, and maybe an underlying fear of freedom.
'Lone Parenthood and Family Disruption' by Louie Burghes, Family Policy Studies Centre.
Polly Toynbee is the BBC's Social Affairs Editor.
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