Academic journal article Family Relations

Challenging the Presumption of Diminished Capacity to Parent: Does Divorce Really Change Parenting Practices?*

Academic journal article Family Relations

Challenging the Presumption of Diminished Capacity to Parent: Does Divorce Really Change Parenting Practices?*

Article excerpt


The purpose of this paper is to determine whether divorced parents exhibit a diminished capacity to parent in the period following divorce. Using 2 waves of data from a national survey of Canadian children, the current study prospectively follows 5,004 children living in 2-biological parent households at initial interview and compares changes in parenting practices between households that subsequently divorce and those that remain intact. Results show that divorce is unrelated to changes in parenting behavior, suggesting that there are more similarities than differences in parenting among recently divorced and continuously married parents.

Key Words: children and divorce, divorce, longitudinal studies, parenting practices.

Although there is considerable debate regarding the effects of divorce on families, most scholars agree that marital dissolution has an important influence on the life course of both parents and their children. Research has consistently found that children of divorced parents are at greater risk for mental health problems and experience lower educational attainment and greater instability in their own intimate relationships as adults (Allison & Furstenberg, 1989; Amato, 2001; Ermisch & Francesconi, 2001; Fergusson, Horwood, & Lynskey, 1994; Hill, Yeung, & Duncan, 2001; ZiIl, Morrison, & Coirò, 1993). Parents also report greater psychological distress and depression following divorce (Lorenz et al., 1997; Wade & Cairney, 2000; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989), and preoccupation with their own personal problems during divorce may interfere with established parenting practices and strain the parentchild relationship (Cooney, Hutchinson, & Leather, 1995; Hetherington & Clingempeel, 1992; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). Nonetheless, researchers have become much more circumspect about the negative consequences of parental divorce in recent years, recognizing that estimates of the effects of divorce are considerably reduced when employing methods that rule out spurious associations. Spurious associations occur when unobserved characteristics causally influence both outcomes and changes in family structure.

For example, the assumption that parental divorce is necessarily harmful to the emotional wellbeing of children has been challenged by longitudinal research with pre- and postdivorce measures of child mental health. By prospectively following children in two-biological parent households and comparing differences in mental health between children whose parents later divorce and children whose parents remain married, researchers have discovered that many of the mental health problems of divorced children were in existence long before the divorce (Cherlin et al., 1991; Fergusson et al., 1994; Jekielek, 1998; Morrison & Coirò, 1999; Strohschein, 2005). It appears that family processes, such as family dysfunction and parental conflict, not only predict and precede marital dissolution but first take a toll on child mental health.

Such findings raise the possibility that the effects of divorce on parenting practices might also be spurious. A rigorous test of the relationship requires more than simply comparing differences between divorced versus married parent households (Ginther & Pollak, 2004; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999). Stronger evidence would involve tracking a sample of two- biological parent households over a period of time and evaluating whether parents who divorce during this time period exhibit significantly worse parenting skills compared to continuously married parents. Although informative, such comparisons are still problematic to the extent that between-group differences potentially obscure intraindividual patterns of change over time and do not control for preexisting family characteristics that are often causally implicated in both divorce and parenting behavior (Amato & Booth, 1996; Strohschein, 2005). …

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