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Yeah, Blame It on the Kids!

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A recent New York Times Magazine article caught my eye with the headline: “Do Daughters Cause Divorce?”

As a child who’d witnessed her fair share of “normal” bickering between her parents, it took me only a second to click on the link. This is how the article began:

Parents of girls are 5 percent more likely to divorce than parents of boys.

Interesting lead-on, conclusive enough to prompt me to scan further. Apparently a study had been conducted in 2003 by two UCLA professors and later analyzed by economists who arrived at the conclusion that “boys are an asset to a marriage and girls are somehow a liability.”

A theory’s been floating around that “families prefer boys.”

For centuries we’ve seen it happen in India: boys carry on the family name, they are an asset who will take care of the parents in old age, they light the pyre. Girls are only a burden — from the moment they’re born one has to worry about their teenage years and pregnancy scares, and save money for their marriage.

In the last two decades, we have, as a modern urban society, made a lot of progress in our thinking, but even now a majority of rural India still holds the precept that boys are better. But those are not the folks we are talking about here — those village folks don’t run around getting divorces and blaming it on their daughters. Although they do blame their daughters for just about everything.

We’re talking about Americans — people in this country whose divorces were studied to reveal that daughters somehow cause five percent more divorces than sons.

Maybe fathers prefer boys and will work harder at keeping a relationship intact in order to raise them? Or the quality of married life is better with boys? Or boys are more likely to fall apart when their father leaves — hence their father doesn’t?

Seven after since the study, a Notre Dame psychology professor resurrected the research and suggested that it’s not so much about the boys, as it is about women with daughters having “less need for a husband.”

After all, she says, nearly three-quarters of all divorces involve a wife leaving her husband, so the question is not why do men stay for boys, but rather why mothers of daughters are divorcing more than mothers of sons.

I say baloney! It was baloney then, it is baloney now.

The study doesn’t take into account existing problems with the marriage, the length of the marriage, or a host of other things that lead to a couple divorcing. Correlation is not causation. And to say that kids — no matter what their gender — cause a marriage to end is freeing adults of all the responsibility.

Essentially this study seems to arrive at the simplistic conclusion that women think in these terms:

Because I need to set a good example for my daughter, I will leave this abusive relationship and get a divorce. I will not have my daughter ruin her life because her mother couldn’t be a better role model. Plus, she will emotionally sustain me. That’s what daughters do.

Or:

Because my son can relate better to his dad, I will stay in this marriage and hope he doesn’t turn into a monster like his father. I cannot handle raising a boy on my own — he needs a father figure, and perhaps when he grows older he’ll rescue me, seeing my plight.

What about a mother with a son and a daughter? The negative effect of the daughter cancels out the positive effect of the son? I guess that couple’s not getting divorced anytime soon.

B.S.

Adults get divorced because of a multitude of reasons. The kids’ welfare may be a high priority item on that list of reasons, but kids aren’t the cause of these rifts.

Adults are.

Also, just because you have a statistical gap in a study doesn’t mean you throw it out there and start speculating…explaining the half-baked results with whatever theory that’ll fit.

And then on top of “hole-filled” study, the headline does a huge disservice to the readers. It’s certainly an attention-grabber, but a cheap one at that. The author even goes so far as to admit it in the comments section:

The story is not “half-hearted” in its attempt to prove that girls cause divorce. It is “not-at-all-hearted”, because it does not attempt to prove that at all. Of course girls don’t “cause” divorce. That’s ridiculous. But based on the data, and the comments, gender does influence at least some parents when deciding whether to end marriage. The headline is a quick, slightly arch, swipe that says “read me.”

lisa belkin

The headline certainly lured me in, as it did hundreds of other people — many of whom took the time to share their personal divorce experiences in the comments section. The gimmick worked.

But it certainly damaged the reputation of The New York Times Magazine in my head. The data itself is not presented or even linked from the report. The writer oversimplifies the whole issue. And then she proceeds to ask readers — lay men and women with no skills or formal training in data analysis — to share their thoughts:

What do you make of the data? Does the idea that a girl will fill an emotional void influence whether a mother stays or leaves? If not, how to explain the statistical gap?

Makes me sick in the stomach.

Both the “research” and the report.

What a waste of everyone’s time.

I wonder if someone somewhere is researching whether women make worse reporters than men. And if their daughters cause them to suck at their craft.

Ugh.

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