Take a Vow to Promote Benefits of Marriage
Wade Horn

November 2, 1999
The Washington Times

As president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, I have spent much  of  the last six years promoting the importance of responsible fatherhood.  During that time, I've discovered two things.

First, there is an increasing receptiveness to the idea that fathers matter and more needs to be done to support and encourage responsible  fatherhood. Second, there is a continuing and deep reluctance to support  married fatherhood as the ideal.

Discussing marriage as the ideal or even preferred family structure is difficult for several reasons. First, marriage is a deeply personal  issue.  In any given audience (including, I assume, the readers of this column), one  can safely assume that at least 40% of the adults are divorced. Many others  will either have parents who are divorced, a spouse who is from a  divorced family, or children who are divorced.

When adults who have been touched by divorce hear others suggest that marriage is the "best" or "ideal" situation, they often interpret this as  a  personal rebuke. Nobody likes to be told that their situation is somehow "second best."

Second, some have bought into the notion of family relativism; the  idea that all family structures are inherently equal, with no consequences for  children (or adults) except, perhaps, for the greater propensity of  single parent families to be poor. Indeed, this argument goes, if we solve the  economic disadvantage of single parent households, there will be no ill effects of growing up in a home without two, married parents.

Third, some simply don't like marriage. They either see marriage promotion as a rationale for withdrawing support from single mothers or  as  means to re-assert male patriarchy and dominance over women. To such  folks, marriage promotion is not just foolish, but downright dangerous.

The empirical literature is quite clear, however, that children do, indeed, do best when they grow up in an intact, two-parent, married household. Even after controlling for differences in income, children  who  live with their married parents are two times less likely to fail at  school, two to three times less likely to suffer an emotional or behavioral  problem requiring psychiatric treatment, perhaps as much as 20 times less likely  o  suffer child abuse, and as adolescents they are less likely to get into trouble with the law, use illicit drugs, smoke cigarettes, abuse alcohol,  or  engage in early and promiscuous sexual activity. One is hard pressed to find a single indicator of child well-being which is not adversely impacted by  divorce or being born out-of-wedlock.

The empirical evidence also is quite clear that adults -- women as  well  as men -- are happier, healthier, and wealthier than their single  counterparts. And communities with high concentrations of married  households  are safer than those with substantially fewer married households.

Of course, some married households, especially where domestic  violence  and child abuse are present, are horrible places for both children and  adults. But contrary to the stereotypes perpetuated by the media and  some  advocacy groups, the reality is that domestic violence and child abuse  are  substantially less likely to occur in intact households than in any other  family arrangement. The truth is the most dangerous place for women and  children is a household where mom is cohabiting with a man who isn't  biologically related to the children.

Given that marriage is so important to the well-being of children,  adults, and communities, how do we overcome our reluctance to talk about  it?  By putting children back at the center of things.

Adults have been spending far too much time arguing among themselves  about the virtues of marriage and far too little time helping our  children  understand why marriage is important and how to form and sustain healthy  marriages. Yet, national surveys consistently show that our young, far  from  rejecting marriage as an ideal, desperately want to avoid the serial  marriages and high divorce rates of their elders. It is time for us to  give  our children what they want.

Children and young adults in the middle class are not the only ones  seeking stable marriages. New data from the Fragile Families Initiative,  funded by the Ford Foundation and conducted by noted researchers Sara  McLanahan and Irving Garfinkel, suggests that at the time of the child's  birth, two-thirds of low-income, unwed couples want -- and expect -- to  get  married.

The problem is that many, if not most, of these low-income couples do  not  go on to get married. But that may be as much our fault as their's, for  our  reluctance even to bring up the topic of marriage sends the not-so-subtle  message that marriage is neither expected nor valued. The wonder is not  that  so few go on to get married, but that some actually do.

The point is this: Marriage is good for children, it is good for  adults,  and it is good for communities. Although not all marriages are perfect  and  some are downright disastrous, marriage, on average, is the most stable  and  healthy environment within which to bear and raise children.

Perhaps we can break through our cultural reluctance to embrace  marriage  as the ideal, by focusing our efforts on helping children and youths  develop  the skills necessary to form and sustain healthy, stable marriages. I'm  confident that is something every parent, including divorced and unwed  parents, wants for their own children.

Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a  clinical child psychologist, and co-author of several books on parenting  including the Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book (Meredith, 1998)  and  the Better Homes and Gardens New Teen Book (Meredith, 1999). Send your  comments to: The National Fatherhood Initiative, One Bank Street, Suite  160,  Gaithersburg, MD 20878, or e-mail him at Gaithersburg, MD 20878, or e-mail him at NFI1995@aol.com.

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