The Article Isn't Serious

David Blankenhorn, American Psychologist, 6/1/2000

In criticizing my book, Fatherless America (Blankenhorn, 1995), Silverstein and Auerbach (June 1999) charged me with having "incorrectly assumed that Trivers's (1972) theory is true of all primates" (p. 400). Yet, I've never written a word about Trivers and don't know who he or she is, nor do I know anything about marmosets, as important as they seem to be to Silverstein and Auerbach's thesis that human fathers make no "unique and essential contribution" (p. 397) to child development. My writing on fatherhood has focused solely on humans, and I would not use the words "essentialist" (p.397) or "neoconservative" (p. 397) to describe my views.

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Subjects: Marriage, Divorce, Children of divorce

More by: David Blankenhorn

In criticizing my book, Fatherless America (Blankenhorn, 1995), Silverstein and Auerbach (June 1999) charged me with having "incorrectly assumed that Trivers's (1972) theory is true of all primates" (p. 400). Yet, I've never written a word about Trivers and don't know who he or she is, nor do I know anything about marmosets, as important as they seem to be to Silverstein and Auerbach's thesis that human fathers make no "unique and essential contribution" (p. 397) to child development. My writing on fatherhood has focused solely on humans, and I would not use the words "essentialist" (p.397) or "neoconservative" (p. 397) to describe my views.

Silverstein and Auerbach (1999) wrote, "In summary, we do not find any empirical support that marriage enhances fathering or that marriage civilizes men and protects children" (p. 402). For the authors to have offered an intellectually serious dissent from the scholarly consensus on this issue would have helpfully advanced the debate, but it wastes everyone's time if they base their argument on the preposterous claim that an entire universe of relevant clinical and social science research literature, well known to any serious person in the field, does not even exist.

Urie Bronfenbrenner of Cornell, Norval Glenn of the University of Texas, David Gutmann of Northwestern, Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute (e.g., Lerman, 1996), Sarah McLanahan of Princeton. (e.g., McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994), Steven Nock of the University of Virginia (e.g., Nock, 1998), Judith Wallerstein, Robert J. Sampson, and Linda Waite of the University of Chicago (e.g., Waite, 1995) - these are only a few of the more prominent researchers who have spent much of the past two decades empirically demonstrating that marriage enhances fathering and benefits society and that accordingly, today's high rates of divorce and unwed childbearing should be viewed as negative social trends. In recent years, a long list of commissions and national reports, involving scores of leading scholars from across the political spectrum, has reached the same conclusion. For Silverstein and Auerbach (1999) to report that they "do not find any empirical support" (p. 402) for this basic proposition is about as intellectually rigorous as me reporting to American Psychologist readers that I can find no empirical support for the existence of the American Psychological Association.

Much of Silverstein and Auerbach's (1999) argument is based on their assertion, repeated often and in various forms throughout their article, that children who grow up apart from their fathers are not necessarily and permanently harmed as a result. For example, they remind us that "divorce does not always have negative consequences for children" (p. 399). No, not always. Similarly, the authors wrote, "Overall, the research suggests that divorce does not irretrievably harm the majority of children" (p. 403).

Few people would disagree with this last assertion. Some might suggest that there is a difference between harm and suffering. and that inflicting suffering on children is seldom helpful or benign, even. If the suffering does not specifically cause them to drop out of school, commit a crime, or endure other forms of direct harm - either ordinary harm or, worse, "irretrievable harm." However, strictly speaking, Silverstein and Auerbach's (1999) claim is probably accurate.

Yet, the claim is ultimately frivolous. To see why, consider an equally bullet-proof assertion: Overall, the research suggests that amputating an arm does not irretrievably harm the majority of children. Well, of course. Most children with amputated arms not only survive physically, but grow up lo lead productive and sometimes even inspiring lives. For example, one well-known pitcher in major league baseball in recent years was a player who in fact has only one arm. Thus, the following statement is also empirically accurate: Having only one arm does not always prevent a person from becoming a professional baseball player. No, not always.

However, once we admit that many people get along quite well with only one arm and that having only one arm does not necessarily cause irretrievable harm in most cases, can't we also admit that, in general, we would strongly prefer that our children have two arms? Over the course of several decades, if we as a society noticed more and more of our children walking around with only one arm, wouldn't we properly begin to worry that something was wrong? Wouldn't we perhaps even decide to take steps to reverse the trend? Wouldn't we take these steps even if two pediatricians wrote an article reminding us, as if we didn't know, that losing an aim won't kill them, you know! Of course we would. And just as our concern would be entirely appropriate regarding children's arms, so it is today regarding children's parents, all the talk in the world about marmosets, essentialists, and neoconservatives notwithstanding.

Finally, Silverstein and Auerbach (1999) frequently reported on scholarly research in ways that suggested that they were unfamiliar with the literature from which they were citing. For example, to support their thesis that divorce itself is not especially harmful for most children, particularly because "the negative effect of divorce is considerably reduced" (p. 403) when scholars take into account family problems that "were actually present prior to the divorce" (p.403), Silverstein and Auerbach cited some earlier work of Paul R. Amato and Allan Booth. Yet, in their more current and more important work, A Generation at Risk (1997), Amato and Booth reached a conclusion on this issue that fundamentally diverges from the perspective offered by Silverstein and Auerbach. In their book, Amato and Booth (1997) sought specifically to isolate the independent effects of divorce on children from the effects of preexisting marital conflict. They concluded that only about 25% to 33% of parental divorces today end up being better for the children than if the parents had stayed together. By contrast, about 70% of divorces today represent the termination of low-conflict marriages, which, whatever their shortcomings, are distinctly better for children than the reality of divorce. Moreover, Amato and Booth estimated that as divorce becomes ever more socially acceptable, an even higher proportion of future divorces will involve precisely those low-conflict situations in which divorce is worse for children than the continuation of marriage. Accordingly, for (the 70% of marriages in trouble that are not fraught with conflict, "future generations would be well served if parents remained together until children are grown"' (Amato & Booth, 1997, p. 238). Also, "Spending one-third of one's life living in a marriage that is less than. satisfactory in order to benefit children - children that parents elected to bring into the world - is not an unreasonable expectation" (p. 238).

It would have advanced the debate if Silverstein and Auerbach (1999) had accurately clarified their differences with Amato and Booth. Above all, it would have helped if they had engaged this issue seriously, but they did not. If Silverstein and Auerbach are unfamiliar with A Generation at Risk (Amato & Booth, 1997) - by far the most important piece of research to be conducted on this issue in the 1990s - then on what basis do they presume to speak on this topic with authority? If they did read the book but simply ignored its findings when discussing this issue in their article, then on what basis do they presume to speak with integrity? Either way, it wastes everyone's time for the authors to suggest that Amato and Booth are saying virtually the opposite of what Amato and Booth, in fact, are saying.

The issue of distinguishing the effects of divorce itself from the effects of pre-divorce family processes has recently occupied the attention, of a several leading researchers, most prominently (besides Amato and Booth) Andrew Cherlin (Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale, & McRae, 1998) and Rex Forehand (Forehand, Armistead, & David, 1997). Both Cherlin and Forehand have reported findings that are basically consistent with those reported by Amato and Booth (1997). Cherlin et al, (1998) specifically stated that "earlier findings" on this topic (including his own), which had emphasized the importance of pre-divorce parental conflict over divorce itself, "should be modified" (p. 247). Forehand et al. (1997) concluded,

In summary, the current results do not provide support for the hypothesis that the negative effects for adolescents traditionally associated with divorce already exist prior to the divorce. Rather, divorce, and its accompanying disruption of family processes, are associated with adolescent adjustment difficulties. (p. 166)

Silverstein and Auerbach (1999) don't mention these findings. That's one way to handle evidence that disconfirms your thesis: Simply pretend that it does not exist. I am going into some detail on this one matter to try to illustrate the difference between confronting a question seriously and simply firing off a claim for which you have found one unrepresentative and outdated academic reference. Throughout their article, regarding almost every issue, Silverstein and Auerbach depended decisively on this latter method.

Silverstein and Auerbach (1999) wrote, "Throughout our discussion, we focus on the work of Blankenhorn . . . and [David] Popenoe" (p. 399). I welcome serious criticism, and I would have welcomed an article from Silverstein and Auerbach that seriously examined the issues at stake. However, they did not write such an article.


Amato, P. R.. & Booth, A. (1997). A generation at risk: Growing up in an era of family upheaval. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Blankenhorn. D. (1995). Fatherless America: Confronting our most urgent social problem. New York: Basic Books.

Cherlin, A. J. Chase-Lansdale, P. L., & McRae, C. (1998). Effects of parental divorce on mental health through the life course. American Sociological Review, 63,239-249.

Forehand, R. Armistead. L., & David, C. (1997). Is adolescent adjustment following parental divorce a function, of pre-divorce adjustment? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 25, 157-167.

Lerman, R, I. (1996). The impact of the changing U.S. family structure on child poverty and income. Economica. 63 (Suppl.), 119-139.

McLanahan, S., & Sandefur, G. (1994). Growing up with a single parent: What hurts, what helps. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nock, S. (1998). Marriage and men's lives. New York: Oxford University Press.

Silverstein, L. B., & Auerbach. C. F. (1999). Deconstructing the essential father. American Psychologist. 54, 397-407.

Waite, L. (1995). Does marriage matter? Demography. 32.483-507.

This article originally appeared here.


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