Common Misconception; 'More similarities than differences in parenting practices'

Anne Marie Owens, National Post  Published: Saturday, December 08, 2007


New Canadian research upends the prevailing notion that children bear the brunt of distracted and angry parents during a marital breakup.

A massive study of 5,000 children compared parenting practices between divorcing households with those that remain intact, and found that divorce was unrelated to changes in parenting behaviour.

The findings stand in stark contrast to popular misconception, the researchers say, that the "inner turmoil caused by marital dissolution automatically transforms parents into inconsistent, punitive and indifferent monitors of their children's activities and needs."

The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Family Relations and undertaken by researchers at the University of Alberta, pulls data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, the most comprehensive analysis of Canadian children.

It gauged the responses to a range of questions related to three kinds of parenting behaviour -- nurturing parenting, consistent parenting and punitive parenting -- at two time points, and found "there are more similarities than differences in parenting practices between divorced and married parents."

In fact, the study found that education and income have a much greater effect on parenting practices than divorce.

Lisa Strohschein, a sociologist and lead researcher of the study, said the findings "overturn this idea that divorce is necessarily harmful to the children ? and that divorce is necessarily the same for all."

The study is called "Challenging the Presumption of Diminished Capacity to Parent: Does Divorce Really Change Parenting Practices?" and it argues that such generalized assumptions "are intuitive only to those inclined to view divorce as unavoidably destructive or who infer that people with failed marriages must also lack the qualities required of a good parent."

Prof. Strohschein says these kinds of assumptions "downplay the real strengths that parents have," and this latest research proves that.

The three lines of questioning were meant to tap into the different ways divorce could be expected to affect more stable parenting behaviour: questions on nurturing parenting would capture whether there was any decline in emotional engagement or time spent with children; questions about consistent parenting would assess whether the distraction of divorce eroded established discipline patterns; and questions around punitive parenting would assess the extent to which divorce might lower the parent's tolerance of children misbehaving.

The parents -- divorcing and continuously married -- were asked multiple questions, their responses measured, and then were asked again two years later, and the answers compared.

"Comparing parenting behaviour at each time point between the two groups of parents reveals no differences in parenting behaviour for parents who divorce relative to parents who remain married," Prof. Strohschein concludes in the study.

She concedes that the finding "appears to fly in the face of accepted wisdom," but says such research should compel family researchers "to recognize the diversity of parenting behaviour in the period following divorce."

While undoubtedly those who lose income and are forced to move out of the family home as a result of divorce will almost certainly experience this "diminished capacity to parent," she says, there are many more divorcing couples whose parenting will be hardly altered by the ordeal.

"This study reveals that researchers still have much to learn about the divorce process and the factors that predict variations in parenting behaviour in the post-divorce period," said Prof. Strohschein, whose research has focused on children's mental health.