Recognizing When Kids Benefit From Their Parents' Divorce

"Would kids really be better off if their parents stayed together, fighting and yelling and tiptoeing around?"

A boy plays hopscotch in his schoolyard. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

A growing body of literature now suggests that the earlier we turn back the clock in kids’ development, the more profound the impact of their environment. Early childhood is critical—race and class differences in achievement are pretty much evident by the time kids reach kindergarten, for instance. Even what happens before you’re born turns out to have consequences for decades afterward. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster lowered the IQs and graduation rates of kids who were in utero all the way over in Sweden, where some of the radioactive iodine blew. An earthquake in Chile resulted in fewer boys being born (boys are a riskier genetic bet and thus have a higher rate of miscarriage under stress) and lower achievement among those whose mothers were closest to the epicenter. If pregnant women fast during Ramadan, their babies suffer. And so on.

Perhaps the scariest prospect is that women are sort of like Russian nesting dolls. When a baby girl is in her mother’s womb, she is developing all the eggs she will have for her entire lifetime. So not only is a pregnant woman affecting her daughter through the placental connection, she may also be affecting the outcomes of her grandchildren through effects on both the ova and the reproductive system of the developing fetus.

Not even dads get off the hook in this intergenerational drama: Alcohol consumption not only results in more difficulty conceiving, but also in less healthy offspring who, themselves, have lower fertility. Meanwhile, if fathers wait too long to conceive, the risk of autism and schizophrenia in their offspring skyrockets—particularly for their sons. It turns out that in today’s society not just women are saddled with a ticking biological clock.

If I were an expectant father reading this literature, I would be inconsolably panicked. But as a parent of now adolescent offspring, it actually causes me to relax. 'Too late now,' I think, when I read that kids born in the fourth quarter of the year (i.e. October, November, or December) in the Northern Hemisphere live longer than those born in the other three quarters (when my kids were born).

I couldn’t have planned the timing of our pregnancies anyway—they were arranged by that mystical trinity: Coulda, Shoulda, and Woulda. If this emphasis on early-life events was not misplaced, then it was beginning to feel like my work was done. My son and daughter could stay at home by themselves if I wanted to meet a friend for a drink, and I could be reasonably certain that I wouldn’t return to a charred heap of embers where our house once stood.

They would do their homework or they wouldn’t; they would bomb Spanish (like I did) and ace biology; they both liked theater and acting despite my lectures about them not being viable career paths; and most important of all, they asked good questions. I hoped it was early childhood that mattered most, because around the time they were entering puberty, my wife and I divorced.

As two hyperactive, career-oriented parents, we—or at least I—thought our marital problems had revolved around one of the main occupational hazards that plague academia, the military, and several other fields: the two-body problem. It is next to impossible for two professors to find jobs in the same city. We briefly managed to achieve it at Yale, but then, not knowing how precious and rare such an arrangement was, we squandered it.

At first we had commuted from New York City to Connecticut. But eventually, during Natalie’s pregnancy with my son, we moved to New Haven. Not only was our work demanding more of us up there and our health plan based at Yale–New Haven Hospital, but after our experience with our daughter’s premature delivery, we wanted to minimize Natalie’s stress and strain while she carried our second child in utero.

But once he was born at full term, I couldn’t stand living in and out of car seats and felt increasingly isolated with two young babies and a wife who worked late at the lab. So when NYU offered me a big raise and sweetened the pot with tenure, I took the opportunity to return to my hometown, where I had lots of support in the form of family and lifelong friends. Natalie, on the other hand, stayed on at Yale, commuting to Connecticut from New York for chunks of the week.

I suppose the silver lining was my own research that showed that when moms worked outside the home, there was more gender equality among the offspring. That is, in so-called traditional families, daughters lagged behind sons. But in working-mother households, the girls achieved just as much as the boys. As a father of a daughter, this was heartening. Though I cringed when she later asked her mother to be “normal” and stay home to bake cookies.

Our commuting arrangement certainly put a strain on us—and not merely because she often had to be away at Yale for three days a week to teach in addition to whatever travel we both had for conferences, lectures, and other work projects; it also took me a good three years to accept our respective roles in our non- traditional marriage. I was the “mom” who was home with the kids, doing dishes and pediatrician appointments, and she was the 1950s “dad”—the fun one who made them laugh and did entertaining activities with them on weekends. Gender psychology aside, it felt like juggling kitchen knives and diapers.

After Yale, Natalie commuted to the University of California at San Diego for three years. Eventually, we were able to glue back together the broken eggshell of jobs and households when she got tenure at NYU as well. Being a pragmatic-minded fellow, I had figured that this final academic chess move, combined with what would be the kids’ eighth move to a new apartment—one that we all could finally agree on—provided the solution to the unique stresses and strains plaguing our rocky marriage. And I had figured it all wrong.

Actually, it was all the external challenges that had held us together. Like two ions with the same charge, once we were contained in the same little space rather than separated by 3,000 miles, we became unstable. Destructive behavior abounded. And the kids found themselves walking on the broken eggshells that remained from my slapdash effort to glue our lives back together.

I had vowed to stay together at least until the children were out of the house. I did this for two reasons. First, I thought that if we—or at least I—took the nuclear option off the table in our fights, perhaps conflict would not escalate to such heights. Second, I was worried about the science of divorce.

There is so much cultural heat surrounding the issue of divorce that even academic studies can get a bit singed. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies showing that kids from divorced families do worse on scores of outcomes. The problem with all of those research papers is that we can never know the counterfactual: What if those particular parents who divorced had actually stayed together? This is an entirely different sample of folks from the parents in the data who did in fact stay together—hearkening back to Tolstoy’s famous dictum.

No, we must confine our inquiry to the ones who did divorce in our sliver of the quantum universe. Would their kids really be better off if they had stayed together in some other quantum state—fighting and yelling and tiptoeing around?

This non-ascertainability is magnified by the plethora of studies showing little to no impact of divorce as well as research arguing that any ill effects of divorce can all be traced to the economic circumstances of the families who divorce and the downward economic mobility of the custodial parent (usually the woman) afterward. If all it took were money to inoculate our kids against any deleterious consequences of parental choice, then I could just work harder and get out of our marriage.

But then I read a study by the cool hand of Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who examined changing divorce laws across the United States. He found that when states made divorce easier by instituting no-fault, just as New York did in the midst of our own split, divorce rates did in fact increase. More importantly, he showed that these kids whose parents would have stayed together if divorce had still been more difficult were worse off 40 years later in terms of their educational attainment, their earnings, and the fate of their own marriages.

Since he estimated these effects based on changes at the state level that had nothing to do with the characteristics of particular happy or unhappy couples, his study was the next best thing to a double-blind medical study that randomly dispensed divorce pills and placebos.

What’s more, the way that divorce tended to disadvantage offspring in Gruber’s study jibed with my own more qualitative research: In a 2003 book, I deployed the term “Cinderella Effect” to argue that divorce didn’t have a universally good, neutral, or bad effect on offspring, but rather, its impact depended on the unique circumstances of the child.

Namely, I found that the eldest female child was the most disadvantaged kid in the aftermath of a divorce because of the added, adult roles she tended to take on. While having to care for younger siblings in light of an absent parent and serve as the substitute partner of sorts to the remaining parent may be a maturing experience, it more often resulted in a child becoming resentful about having to grow up too fast and sacrifice his or her childhood autonomy for the sake of younger siblings and the family in general.

Often these kids tried to escape the burdens of their family of origin quickly—the same way Cinderella did—through marriage to Prince Charming. Indeed, Gruber found that the effect of divorce on lowering offsprings’ education and earnings levels and raising their divorce rates worked through those kids’ own marital history. They tended to marry earlier than they would have had their parents stayed together. Earlier marriages tend to pull individuals away from additional education they might have otherwise pursued. That, in turn, depresses earnings in the long run. What’s more, as we all know, marrying younger means a higher risk of divorce.

The tricky issue is that the social world is constantly evolving so it’s almost impossible for a social scientist (and worried parent) to keep up with how so-called “effects” may be changing in magnitude and perhaps even direction over time. After all, Gruber’s study is now a decade old. The real kicker is that research itself can alter the very subject it studies.

For example, once an economist found that, everything else equal, there was a slight uptick in the price of stocks on the New York Stock Exchange when it was sunny in Manhattan (where the trading floor is located), with a corresponding negative effect when it was cloudy or rainy in the Big Apple. Now, what did this intrepid young social scientist do? Instead of forming a new private equity fund called “Helios Capital” or “Apollo Investments” to arbitrage the finding and get filthy rich, the academic published a damn working paper about the phenomenon. The moment Wall Street found out about it, every analyst worth her salt put New York City weather into her statistical models and POOF! the effect was gone thanks to the wonders of data and the free market. I hope the author at least got tenure.

But for me, this Heisenberg-Hawthorne-like phenomenon was a godsend: By knowing about these Cinderella and No Fault Divorce Effects and their pathways, I could actively intervene to mitigate some of the very research I authored. So all I had to do, if I understood Dr. Gruber’s diagnosis correctly, was to get my kids to stay in school as long as possible and discourage them from tying the knot too early in their lives. I’d have some time to come up with a strategy on that front.

In the meantime, I needed to make sure my daughter didn’t feel pressure to grow up too quickly or take on too many household responsibilities. That part was easy since I just continued to spoil my kids in all realms except math, but the catch was that we can only counteract the social tendencies that we know about. Late at night I worried about what invisible marital fallout might damage my children in ways I could not yet imagine.

This post is adapted from Dalton Conley's Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask.