Does Moving After Divorce Damage Kids?
By Norval Glenn and David Blankenhorn Sept 11, 2003
A few weeks ago, newspaper across the country trumpeted a new
research finding: ``Moving After Divorce Damages Kids." The new study, by Sanford L. Braver and two colleagues at Arizona State University, claims that children suffer when the custodial parent, usually the mother,
relocates to a new community following divorce. Even moving an hour's drive away from the noncustodial father, the report concludes, causes ``significant" problems for children.
This research matters. The
``move-away" issue is politically red-hot today – especially in California, where important court decisions on the issue are expected soon, but also in other family courts across the country. The debate is quite
polarized, with those who support the independence of divorced mothers pitted against fathers rights advocates who, based partly on research showing the importance of fathers, want courts to restrict the ability of
ex-wives to move away with their children after divorce.
That's why any research on this issue needs to be solid. It's also why newspaper stories describing the research need to be precise.
Unfortunately, the episode earlier this summer failed on both counts.
The two of us disagree on the policy issues at stake here. But we agree that the Braver study is a weak one that provides no credible
evidence on the effects on children of moving away after divorce.
In the fall of 2001, Professor Braver distributed questionnaires to about 2,000 students enrolled in an introductory psychology course at
Arizona State. The questions covered 14 areas of personal well-being. The survey also asked students if their parents had divorced and, if so, whether both parents had remained within an hour's drive of one another
after the divorce. On 11 of the 14 indicators, the move-away children of divorce fared worse than did the children of divorce whose parents did not move far apart. That was the entire study.
Academically, this is very thin gruel. First, the differences between the two groups were quite small. Moreover, in the most crucial areas -- friendship and dating behavior, substance abuse, and general life
satisfaction – there were no significant differences at all between the two groups.
And what caused the remaining differences between the two groups? No one knows. Certainly the researchers do not
know. They did not report, and presumably did not even collect, the background information on the students that would permit even informed guesses about the reasons for the differences between the two
For example, it is highly likely that the move-away parents got divorced when their children were younger, compared to the divorced parents who stayed closer. In many cases, the issue of
moving away is also linked to remarriage. Remarriage, in turn, often affects the ability and willingness of noncustodial fathers, who now typically have new dependents and new expenses, to provide financial support
to their original families. Similarly, mothers who remarry, or who move away to take higher-paying jobs, may receive or ask for less financial support from ex-husbands.
So what is causing these
(small) differences in some of these young people's answers to this one Arizona questionnaire? It is how old you were when your parents split up? Is it whether one or both of your parents did, or did
not, remarry? Is it the level of child support and alimony your mother received? Is it how much your parents fought and quarreled before the divorce, or how well they cooperated, or failed to cooperate,
after the divorce? Or is it whether your mother after the divorce moved an hour or more's drive away from your father? Or is it something else entirely? Again, no one knows for sure, and on the
basis of this study, no one could possibly know. To their credit, the researchers acknowledge as much in what amounts to the fine print of the study.
Which brings us to the media. The two of us have observed this scenario countless times.
A weak and limited study is reported, sometimes with appropriate cautions and sometime not, in a
professional journal. (In this case, the Journal of Family Psychology, a respected publication.) Then the university press office goes to work. They distribute a press release with a strong headline and
without any of the qualifications and attention to complexity that might have appeared in the professional journal. Then the journalists go to work. They interview the researchers, who often make sweeping
statements that make the press release look tame, including expressing their long-held views on public policy issues that are only indirectly addressed, if even that, by the study itself. Finally, the headline
writers go to work. The result? In this case, lots of headlines like ``Moving Away Really Hurts Kids." The losers in this process are the public and policy makers, who are misinformed about important issues,
and children of divorce, whose true interests are not served.