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30 July 2001

Sex at 14? Blame it on her parents

Be wary of so-called "science" using children as ideological pawns, warns Geraldine Bedell

By Geraldine Bedell

“Children of divorce: twice as likely to write bad poetry”, the headline said. Underneath, Dr Ruth Wyler-Feldman of Duke University’s Center for the American Family explained that parental separation often results in atrocious poetry. “Devastated by the break-up of the family,” she asserted, “these children are responding with poems awash in bathos, forced rhymes and mixed metaphors comparing their souls to rainstorms.”

This was a spoof, earlier this year, in the American satirical magazine the Onion. Yet, in tone, it was scarcely distinguishable from the story in recent days that divorce is driving the young to underage sex. According to a Bedford-based organisation called the Family Matters Institute, young people are twice as likely to engaged in underage sex if their parents are separated or cohabiting as if they were married. The gloss from one of the report’s authors, Dr Clifford Hill, made clear where the Family Matters Institute was coming from (the moral authoritarian, things-were-better-in-the-1950s corner). “This is surely one of the most important issues facing our country today,” he said. “If one or other of the parents is rarely around, or has been unfaithful, then that affects the mores of the child.”

Well, hang on a minute. This was a survey of 2,000 young people who filled out questionnaires at school. Might there be a possibility that they weren’t all telling the truth? Even if we accept the figures, are they meaningful? Divorce doesn’t come out of the blue, but is part of a process that begins well before the legal paperwork and goes on afterwards. So who is to say that, if the parents had stayed together for the sake of the children, the outcome would have been any different? Perhaps what actually matters is the quality of the relationships.

Sure enough, buried deep in the report is a suggestion that parents could help their children avoid underage sex by working harder to communicate with them, taking more interest in their leisure activities and engaging them in discussions about moral behaviour. To which one can only say: surprise, surprise.

It is perfectly possible that the divorce itself might not be the cause of the underage sex, but an incidental symptom of something rotten in the family. It is too easy to oversimplify research of this kind. (Remember the reports of the poorer educational attainment of the children of working mothers, which ignored the fact that the children of part-timers appeared to be doing best.) The Family Matters Institute research does not seem to address such muddying issues as whether the divorce led to poverty, or how it occurred, or whether the children continued to see their non-custodial parent.

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The best overview of divorce research, conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, reviewed 200 reports produced over several decades, and concluded that only a minority of children suffered long-term adverse effects as a result of their parents’ divorce. But those who did were twice as likely to suffer in a number of specific areas.

In the attempt to give a “scientific” gloss to moral panic, children have once again become the pawns, the locus of cultural contention. Modern childhood is like litmus paper: every anxiety, from sex (especially sex) to social exclusion, has to be explored with reference to its likely effect on the young. At one level, this may be a good thing. Children might represent a useful way of having a debate about society, because when we have lost faith in so much that used to bind us – authority, religion, ideology – children offer hope, the possibility of progress, and a moral consensus.

Over the next couple of decades, there will be a huge diversity of families raising children. Some will be headed by one parent, others by two. Some parents will be married, others will never have married, some will be divorced or have remarried. They will come from a variety of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. At the very least, we need to discuss how far public policy can, and should, interfere in these arrangements, to ensure stable, loving, economically secure units.

There are some signs that the government would like to turn children into a central story of its second term. But policies that put the family at the centre of a strong community, while doing away with social exclusion by means of paid work, may not be easily reconcilable. Fine for the government to reward work; but we need to be clear what it is in work we really value, and whether non-paid work counts at all.

We prize the family, yet the qualities needed for a good family life are in opposition to those required for success by 21st-century capitalist society. At a time when routine is crumbling and short-term contracts are the norm, children require committed investment and the persistent suppression of self-interest. But society does not make that easy. What rational person would compromise their marketable skills to invest in the family, when abandoning their career in mid-life is such a risk?

The Family Matters Institute’s report brings together divorce and teenage pregnancies, two symbols of social failure, in one story, and contains just enough truth to make for alarmist headlines. But if its aim is to scare people into staying together, or being happy, it isn’t going to work.

At a time when many people are dismayed by what the market economy does to us – the individualism it demands, the commodification of our desires – the family stands as an alternative way of thinking about ourselves. Yet, paradoxically, the goods that the family produces – citizens, workers, consumers – are crucial to the market economy. The family does this work not merely unpaid, but actually at a cost. Good parents have less time to work than other people (therefore, quite possibly, a lower income) and almost no time for themselves. These are the really troubling issues about the family, and they have an awful lot to do with the high rate of divorce. Reports such as the one from the Family Matters Institute not only fail to address them, but send everybody haring off in the wrong direction.

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