Divorce May Be Good for Girls

Driven by the anecdotal interviews and the peripatitetic web presence of Judith Wallerstein, the culture accepts it as a given that divorce is always terrible for children. Now comes research from the University of Florida challenging this widely held assumption. The doctoral dissertation looked at two groups of girls between the 1st and 10th grades, those whose parents divorced and those whose parents filed for divorce but remained married. The girls whose parents divorced scored eight points higher on standardized tests than the girls whose parents filed but stayed together.

The limitations of this finding are obvious. It deals with only Alachua County, Florida (Gainesville), and it includes only a ten year period, between 1993 and 2003. And the study from then doctoral student Mark Hoekstra found no such improvement for boys.

However, the study finesses the normal “straw man” problem in these kinds of inquiries, where someone (often someone with a social agenda) compares children of divorced parents with children from intact homes, shows that the children of divorce are less happy or performing at a lower school or getting pregnant quicker, or whatever, and concludes that divorce is terrible for kids. As anyone knows after taking Statistics 101, that comparison is meaningless, because it compares the children of parents who are predominantly happily married with those who parents are in conflict. Of course the children of happy parents will do better. That proves nothing.
Hoekstra has addressed the question that really matters: looking only at the children of troubled marriages, are the children better off if the parents divorce or stay together?

Boys showed a slight increase in discipline problems immediately after a split (rather than the decrease shown for girls). Hoekstra’s explanation of the difference between the performance of boys and girls is that divorce often results in the separation of the children from their father and that boys may have a greater need for time with dad.

Hoekstra is now an economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh (presumably, that dissertation was good enough to get him his degree and we may address him as Dr. Hoekstra). Let’s hope he continues this line of research. The questions are tantalizing.