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Beyond the impact of divorce on children, let’s not forget factors such as family environment and social class

For most Singaporeans, divorce is still a dirty word, even when it is now increasingly seen as fairly common and acceptable. Yet, while marriage is expected to be a “till death do us part” sanctioned union, the mean number of divorces annually over the last half decade stood at 7,170, rising from the 7,018 recorded in the preceding five-year period. Should we be alarmed by this? Does divorce have a negative impact on children?

Beyond the impact of divorce on children, let’s not forget factors such as family environment and social class

The mean number of divorces annually over the last half decade stood at 7,170, rising from the 7,018 recorded in the preceding five-year period.

For most Singaporeans, divorce is still a dirty word, even when it is now increasingly seen as fairly common and acceptable.  

It reflects a failed marriage, as compared to the hoped-for, lifetime marital bliss which couples look forward to when they decide to take the plunge.  

Yet, while marriage is expected to be  a “till death do us part” sanctioned union, the mean number of divorces annually over the last half decade stood at 7,170, rising from the 7,018 recorded in the preceding five-year period.   

Should we be alarmed by this? Does divorce have a negative impact on children? 

Would a small, but significant proportion of the next generation be bearing the “sins” of their divorced parents and thereby be found doing less well than their counterparts with parents who remained married?   

A recently released, landmark Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) study on the Intergenerational Effects of Divorce on Children in Singapore found that children of divorced parents are more likely to suffer long-term socioeconomic disadvantages or a persistent “divorce penalty”.  

Among other things, these children were more likely to earn less in their careers, less likely to marry and they were more likely to get divorced if they were married.  

These findings resonate with similar studies conducted in other social contexts.

Moreover, most  people would consider the above findings to be intuitively logical and plausible, given their stereotypical image of a family with divorced parents as being a dysfunctional one, characterised by tension and conflict between the feuding parents, their neglect of the children, and the likelihood of the mother becoming a single parent with inadequate social and financial support.

However, while the stereotypical image does make logical and empirical sense, the negative socioeconomic consequences for the offspring of divorced parents cannot be attributed to parental divorce alone.  

Among the possible factors that could account for the negative consequences on children are poor family relations; lack of economic, social and cultural capital; or the absence of parental or adult family members’ support for the children's wellbeing, as well as positive role-models who could help the children inculcate values which encourage deferred gratification, discipline, perseverance and aspirations.  

While these “family environment” deficits are related to the quality of the parents’ marital relationship, they also have much to do with the family’s social class as well.  

The implication here is that “family environment”, incorporating the class dimension, should be included in any analysis on the socioeconomic outcomes of children in adulthood.

In its methodological brief, the MSF research report has actually pre-empted the above criticism.  It points out that the study either did not or, more likely, was unable to account for the impact of  unobserved variables, like “family environment".  

The latter is, based on my reading of studies on intergenerational mobility, a critical and more comprehensive set of factors which influence social class reproduction and mobility across generations.   

What I am also suggesting here is that once  we include “family environment” in the analysis, in addition to the demographic variables — age, gender, race, religion and education — we may just discover that whether the parents were divorced or had remained married does not have a statistically significant impact on their offspring’s socioeconomic outcomes. 

However, this is not to imply that a successful marriage has absolutely no bearing on the quality of “family environment”; neither am I arguing that a failing marriage which does not culminate in a divorce is more beneficial for the children than one with divorced parents, but which possesses a positive “family environment”.  

Indeed, a seemingly intact, but toxic marital relationship is harmful to the children, unless there are other responsible adults, such as grandparents or close relatives or family friends who could make up for or mitigate the deficit caused by the still married parents.  

By the same token, the presence of other responsible adults could also serve as proxy parents to provide the protective factors to dampen the negative effects of absent or ineffective parents, whether divorced or not.

What then are the possible policy implications if we consider the above observations? 

Notwithstanding my belief that toxic marital relationships are best dissolved, and that “staying together for the sake of the kids” is not necessarily the best option, I would still support the policy of providing pre-marital and marital counselling.

However, I also wish that there are some ways of persuading people who cannot be committed to providing a positive “family environment” for their potential spouse and future children to reconsider or postpone their marriage and childbearing plans.  

My heart goes out to children who, through no decisions of their own, are brought into this world and not given a “family environment” that could provide them a fighting chance to survive, even thrive amid the challenges ahead.

I applaud MSF’s efforts in providing divorce support to ensure that the wellbeing of the children of divorced parents are not compromised.

I also believe that while the study discussed here focused primarily on parental divorce and its negative consequences for the children, MSF recognises the importance of a holistic approach towards addressing the likely problems faced by the children of divorced parents. 

This holistic approach entails providing adequate support for the children’s education, including early childhood education, or more broadly, having access to economic, social and cultural capital which would ensure that they are not left behind through no fault of theirs. 

More specifically, as the pandemic has alerted us to, children need to have access to a conducive space and the necessary digital tools to facilitate their formal education.  

They also need mentors who could guide, nurture and help them acquire the soft skills and knowledge necessary for thriving in adult life.   

The bottom line here is to ensure that class origin does not determine class destination.

If anything, the MSF study also serves as a timely reminder that the family is a key pillar of Singapore society, and it must therefore be strongly supported to enable it to raise a healthy, well-adjusted, future-ready next generation for Singapore.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tan Ern Ser is associate professor of sociology, academic convener of Singapore Studies and academic adviser to the Social Lab@IPS at the National University of Singapore.

Related topics

family and relationships Divorce MSF children

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