Tolstoy’s "Anna Karenina" tells the story of a mother’s decision to leave her difficult marriage for an extramarital relationship. The effects of her decision are profound, most poignantly expressed in the response of her young abandoned son. Wherever he goes, Seryozha is “constantly keeping a lookout for his mother.” But he does not find her, and one is left with the striking image of a child’s broken heart.
For Tolstoy, children are “the compass” that shows us how far we have diverged from what we know is right but may not want to see. But as David Patterson wisely notes, it is not as “a judge” that Seryozha (or any child) reveals how far we have diverged. “Rather, it is as a victim,” for the fragile, dependence of a child means he will bear the effects of other’s decisions, especially those who gave him life.
Children, then, are not only a compass for parents, but for society as a whole. For without that precious but fragile life there is no future society. That should invite all of us to ask about the well-being of children today, and what their well-being reveals about the culture we have created for them.
Today, only 33 percent of all households in America contain children. Total fertility rates are below replacement levels, at 1.96 (compared to 3.7 in 1960), and 19 percent of women ages 40-44 are childless (a rate that has doubled since 1976).
As summarized in “The State of Our Unions,” the presence of children has declined significantly since 1960. And with that, “the needs and concerns of children may be gradually receding from our national consciousness.”
Perhaps nowhere is this more striking than in the way children’s lives are shaped by their parent’s relationship. In 1960, 5 percent of children were born to an unmarried mother. By 2014, that rate had increased to 41 percent, and with it the reality that many children face dramatically increased risks for poverty, involvement in crime, failing in school, psychological distress, mental illness, child abuse and suicide, when compared to children born to their married parents.
In fact, the percentage of cohabiting couples with children has nearly tripled since the late 1990s. And while some argue that a marriage certificate is merely a piece of paper, comparisons between marriage and cohabitation reveal a profound difference. Across the world, cohabiting couples with children are nearly two times more likely to break up than those who are married, a rate that remains high regardless of socioeconomic status, or the level of prevalence and social acceptance of cohabitation. Instability alone poses significant risks for children in these relationships.
Currently, 42-45 percent of first marriages are predicted to divorce. Decades of research suggest that children in these families are two and a half times more likely to experience serious social, emotional or psychological problems than children from non-divorced families. When their parents remarry, the risks remain. Children in married stepparent families look more like children of single parents than children raised by their own married mother and father.
For children, there is no replacement for growing up with their own married parents. No matter how hard we try to fill that hole with money, better day care or positive role models (all of which can help), “no other institution reliably connects two parents, and their money, talent and time, to their children in the way that marriage does.”
Increasingly prevalent, though less studied, are families where children have been intentionally denied a relationship with their biological mother or father from conception. Only recently have children conceived by anonymous donors been able to give voice to the pain they experience in never knowing one or more of their parents.
As one researcher noted, "The persistent superiority of outcomes stemming from a nuclear family … can be explained, almost fully, by the fact that [it] presents the child with two parents biologically related to him or her. …” Marriage does not benefit children primarily because it gives them “improved parents (more stable, financially affluent, etc., although it does do this),” but because it gives them “their own parents.”
Cultural responses to the pain children experience because of adult decisions typically range from, “Well, sadly, this is the world we live in” to “Kids are resilient. They’ll be all right.” But the reality is that we have created a culture centered on the free expression of adult rights. Inherently, such a culture will pose risks to the most vulnerable among us, the children.
Children can and must lead us in a better way — giving us a direction and a future beyond ourselves — one in which familial bonds invite more care and responsibility, and even more, the development of the nobler virtues of commitment, sacrifice and love that our children depend so much upon.
Jenet Erickson is a family sciences researcher and a former assistant professor at Brigham Young University.