Here's a solution to one of today's fast-growing tragedies.
DIVORCE is far more than an unpleasant fact of life. For those who have experienced what it is like to have a marriage fall apart around them, it's a nightmare. Yet in spite of the pain and sorrow divorce can cause, the trend of failed marriages is still upward. When will we humans learn what we are doing to ourselves? The casualty figures are enormous. Millions of lives are shattered. Parents who become irreconcilable and experience divorce know how traumatic it can be. And the very nature of some legal systems only creates more hostility between divorcing mates. Somewhere in the divorce process, however, children of divorce often become of secondary importance unless parents are careful. Many parents, caught up in the emotions of court battles, can forget how deeply and profoundly their children are being affected. How do children react to divorce? How will it affect them? How can you, if you are a divorced parent, help your children adjust to the circumstance of life in a single-parent family? Is there hope of a brighter future for them?
Divorce and Children
No two children have quite the same reaction to their parents' divorce, but there are some typical responses. Divorce, for children, is a time of confusion and helplessness. They have no sense of control over their lives, and they fear for their relationship with their parents. As a result of the turmoil caused by divorce, many children, even adolescents, have trouble sleeping, concentrating or even controlling bodily functions. Their moods may swing radically from near total withdrawal to hyperactive aggression. Overall, there is a pervasive feeling of loneliness and depression. The basic question in children's minds is, "What's going to become of me?" But not all of their thoughts are self-centered. They also worry about their parents. "Where will Daddy live?" "Who'll take care of Mommy?" Many children may believe that they caused their parents' divorce and bear a huge burden of guilt. Keith Black of the Winnipeg, Manitoba, Child Guidance Clinic noted, "I have talked to children from divorced or separated homes, and they keep wondering and asking themselves if they are to blame." Younger children have difficulties mainly because their understanding of the situation is superficial, and yet their feelings on the matter run deeper than they or most adults realize. They have neither the confidence nor the vocabulary to state how they feel. And those pent-up feelings can be a time bomb just waiting to go off sometime in their lives. Children suffer conflicts of loyalty. And this emotional tug-of-war can be compounded by bitter criticism of one mate by the other. Preadolescent' boys especially identify with their fathers, so any criticism directed at Dad may wound them as well. Many children feel angry. Young children may throw temper tantrums while older teens may scold or criticize one or both parents for destroying their family unit. All children caught up in their parents' divorce suffer an enormous loss of self-esteem. The rejection they feel is both profound and lasting. Unchecked, these feelings of rejection can severely handicap children of divorce in present and future relationships. Such childhood experiences are documented in an American study published in 1980 entitled Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope With Divorce by Drs. Judith Wallerstein and Joan Berlin Kelly. This is a landmark study available at many public libraries in North America — and well worth the time invested in reading it. The Church of England's Children's Society also published (in June 1983) a significant study on this subject entitled Children of Divorce: The Report of an Ecumenical Working Party on the Effects of Divorce on Children. According to this study, "Divorce may affect children detrimentally in the long term, and probably does so to a greater extent than is commonly realized."
How Children Are Affected
One area in which children are readily affected is in that of academic performance. In a study by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Planning and Evaluation, it was found that the positive and negative influences of home life have a direct bearing on one's academic performance. In this study, children who lived in a two-parent family in which the mother did not work outside the home scored the highest average of any group on an achievement test. Conversely, children from single-parent families where the mother worked full time outside the home scored the lowest. The difference between these two groups was threefold: the amount of stress the children were under, the security of having a mother there when the need arose, and the blessing of living in a two-parent family where a father was earning the living. There are effects that may go unnoticed, however. Dr. Marshall D. Schecter, professor and director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, has dealt with these problems for 35 years. The divorce of loved parents, reports Dr. Schecter, can cloud a child's or a young adult's outlook on marriage. In the back of their minds, many children of divorce wonder whether their future or present marriage will fall apart just as Mom's and Dad's did. Many have concluded that the children of divorce have a higher rate of divorce than those who have not had divorce in their background. But, hard data are unavailable to confirm what professionals who have studied the effects of divorce suspect. If these educated guesses are true, then someone who grew up in a broken home, married, had children and later divorced, could well have set in motion divorce as a family way of life for his or her own children. Can divorce become literally a way of life? For millions it has!
What Parents Can Do
If you are a divorced parent and want to give your children the best possible chance under the circumstances, here are some things to consider. For your children's sake, don't follow the crowd. Many authorities estimate that 80 percent of preschool children receive no explanation at all of their parents' divorce. Though your mutual partnership has ended with your mate, your parental responsibilities have not. Both parents should explain this to their children. Your children need to know — and be shown — that they are loved and wanted. They need to know that both of you are concerned about their welfare. Make sure your children understand that they are not to blame for your divorce. Reaffirm this, many times, since they need that reinforcement. Tell your children that you know they are hurting. Get them to talk about it. If you have small children, spend more time with them, hold them and reassure them. They desperately need your time and concern at this juncture. Don't make negative comments about your former mate in front of your children. And don't turn your children into messengers or spies. This only adds to their hurt and divided loyalties. As one 13-year-old boy put it, "My father has to understand that when he shoots arrows at my mother, they have to go through our bodies before they reach her." Try to minimize the changes in your life until you and your children can adjust to the situation of being in a single-parent family. Be dependable. How many times have children eagerly awaited the arrival of a parent on visiting day or some important function only to be disappointed when that parent doesn't show up or is late. Usually, the visit is cut short and no explanation is given — soon none will be asked for. Don't try to buy your children's affection. They don't need or want armloads of toys, nor do they have to constantly go to some recreation center in order to enjoy time with you. Children want your love, concern and affection. If you are the parent with custody, do not deliberately cut your former mate or grandparents and relatives off from your children. It is important for children to know their roots. Children who have access to relatives on both sides of the family have an easier time adjusting to life in the single-parent family. Get with your ex-spouse and work out some ground rules you can both agree to in order to avoid conflicts that can arise during visits. If you have custody, and the other parent has simply fled or his or her whereabouts are unknown, consider moving closer to your relatives. Children need role models, and in most cases, your family can help ease the void of an absent parent for your children. But, remember, though you may be living near or with your family, they are your children, not your relatives'. Don't forget that your children still need discipline. After they've been emotionally hurt by divorce, they especially need a routine and guidelines. As Maria Isaacs, director of the Families of Divorce Project at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, put it, "Guilt often prevents parents from setting limits, but a kid gets very frightened in a house with no rules. At this time more than ever — when so much else is changing — they need firm clear limits." Finally, don't forget your financial obligation to your children. It is vital to their welfare.
Child support or maintenance has become a big issue, especially in the United States and Canada. The problem of negligence has become so great that, to quote the cover story of the March 21, 1983 issue of Maclean 's magazine: "With default of divorce settlement payments running at 30.9 per cent in the United States (and with 75 per cent of agreements in arrears in Canada, according to 1976 figures), [divorce] insurance may become as prevalent as wedding gifts." One government survey done in 1982 by the U.S. Census Bureau found that only 46.7 percent of those eligible were receiving the full amount of child support they were entitled to under the terms of their court settlement. In 1981, U.S. child support payments averaged $2,110 — up $310 from 1978. But when inflation is taken into account, the average payment total actually declined by 16 percent. Along these lines, a study by the U.S. National Conference of State Legislatures found that men's disposable incomes actually rise 42 percent after a divorce while women's fall by 73 percent. And women in the United States are their children 's guardian nine times out of ten in a divorce. What is the answer to this serious problem? Should divorce settlements — child support or maintenance — simply be deducted from the absent parent's wages? Many heartily agree. Absent fathers, however, point out that the reason many payments are withheld is that they're often not allowed to visit their children. They add that should the government ask for these payments to be withheld from the paychecks, they would find a way around it should visiting rights be withheld. But who are the real victims? Once again it is the children. All of the arguing and bickering will not solve the fact that if many children do not receive income from child support, they do without clothes and other necessities — even food. Society as a whole has a stake in the matter because many of those guardian parents who do not receive child support payments have nowhere else to turn but public welfare. However, though human legal processes seem to be paralyzed on the matter of child support, there is an authority that is quite clear on the subject of financial support of one's family — and on divorce as a whole. The Bible plainly states: "But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household [his flesh and blood], he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (I Tim. 5:8, RAV). For parents to treat their children like chattels or bargaining chips is the crudest form of selfish pride. God does hear the cries of the fatherless in their affliction (Ex. 22:22-23). To those who earnestly seek God's will and help, God says he will grant them relief (Ps. 146:9).
Why There Is Divorce
Man was never intended to have to endure the pain and turmoil. of divorce (Matt. 19:7-9). God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). Nevertheless, God did allow a way out of unendurable situations in a marriage. The Roman world during the apostle Paul's day was troubled by divorce. This trend even affected Christians of the day. But while admonishing believers not to seek divorce from unbelieving mates, Paul did make allowance in cases when the unbeliever departed (I Cor. 7:10-15). Nevertheless, the fruits of divorce — any divorce — are pain and suffering. Sadly, children suffer along with their parents. Before the turn of the century, divorce was rare and handled much differently from today. For example, in the United States, the father almost automatically received custody of his children in a divorce. But aside from all of the problems attributable to the Victorian age, on this point uncanny wisdom prevailed. Men were reluctant to divorce because they would have been saddled with greater responsibilities' than they would have wanted to handle. Women, in turn, would have lost access to the children whom they had borne, loved and nurtured. In this sense, the custody laws of the day were neither pro-male nor pro-female. Rather, they were pro-family. As times changed, so did human divorce laws. For instance, in the last 50 years, the number of divorces in the United States has increased 700 percent! And nation after nation has followed the U.S. lead in liberalizing divorce laws. People have become accustomed to these figures, though many are becoming alarmed. Even today's professionals in the area of divorce and child care are having second thoughts about decades of freewheeling divorce. "There are times," said Dr. Schecter in a telephone conversation with The Plain Truth, "I've wondered very much whether the old-fashioned idea of putting up with a spouse with whom you have a certain level of decency and satisfaction — for the purpose of looking at the children's interests — might really be the best thing in the long run." Dr. Schecter noted that some situations in marriages would simply be inappropriate to remain in, but added, "If people are relatively solid, they may be able to live in some comfort together and develop some of their interests." Sadly, however, staying together is not the trend. Chances are divorces will continue to increase and take their toll on society. As Cornell University professor Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner noted, "Never in the history of any society have we had a situation in which only one person and sometimes less than one is left with the responsibility of bringing up a child... it's a very unreliable structure." However, after man has done with debating the pros and cons, what needs to be realized is that the family is not some invention of man for mere convenience — a passing phenomenon of social evolution. The family was ordained by the Creator God (Gen. 2:18, 24) as the fundamental building block of society. Because of its importance, God made laws to protect the integrity of the family (Ex. 20:12, 14, 17). In addition, many biblical statutes emphasize the marriage and parent-child relationship, and admonish humanity to uphold them both. God considers the role of parents to be vital. God is called the "father of the fatherless" ( Ps. 68:5). This phrase applies to the children of widows, to those who may not even know who their fathers are, those whose parents are separated for economic reasons or pending a reconciliation, as well as the children of divorce.
There Is a Way Out
God takes seriously the problems caused by divorce: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse [utter destruction]" (Mal. 4:5-6). For 50 years, the pages of The Plain Truth have thundered God's warnings about the dismemberment of the family to a world wrapped up in its own pleasure seeking — a society bent on learning every lesson the hard way. A survey done in the U.S. a few years ago by Parade magazine showed that, after a year of having thought about their divorce, 60 percent of the men and 73 percent of the women questioned felt that they had made a mistake in divorcing their former mates. What a pity that so many are either ignorant of their Creator or refuse to listen to him. And because of parents' mistakes, children suffer the consequences, sometimes all their lives. God hears the cries of the children of divorce. He sees every tear. And soon now, the very God who created the family will step in to save that institution. God in his tremendous mercy has provided mankind a way out. Christ has paid the penalty for our sins (Rom. 3:25, I John 2:2) — not to allow us to remain in our sins (John 8:11) but to enable us to make a fresh start. The soon-coming kingdom of God will give the world that chance. We can begin to make that new beginning even now. God gave us an instruction book that lists teachings on every facet of life. We call that book the Bible. The Bible has much to say about child rearing, divorce and human relations in general. The book of Proverbs is full of sound counsel for young (and old) people. Now is the time to be forearmed with the knowledge God has made available to us in the Bible. The problems that beset the children of divorce can only be dealt with after the fact. But if you are a parent in this situation don't stand idly by — blow off the dust on your Bible and read it. Find out how to deal with life, marriage, children. Put to practice the counsel mentioned in this article. More important, learn to seek God's will in each aspect of your life. With God's help and a lot of diligence on your part, perhaps your divorce will be the last in your family. And your children will be grounded in a way of life that will stand them in good stead in the world tomorrow — a world in which there need be no children of divorce, just children who are happy, loved and free from fear of a shattered family.