What Kids Really Need to Thrive


When we first started discussing divorce, our son was the reason I told myself we couldn't do it.  Yes, my own parents divorced when I was five, and I'm fine.  Or fine enough.  I'm certainly as fine as most people I know.  When I look around at my friends, I can't point to any divide in happiness, success or marital status between those whose parents divorced and those whose didn't.

But still.  Wouldn't our son be more fine if we stayed married?

Not according to four decades of research.  Ideally, perhaps, we’d all awaken to a happy, harmonious marriage simmering on the hearth, casting a protective net over our children, but if you’ve reached the point of divorcing, this is not your other option.

Nor is it what kids need to thrive.

Research shows that about 80-percent of children of divorce do well in life. They adapt, and see no lasting negative effects on their grades, social adjustment, or mental health.

These findings arrive from a variety of sources, including a 20-year study done by psychologist Constance Ahrons, published as the book We’re Still Family.  (For help on your own divorce, check out Ahrons’ book, The Good Divorce.) 

Development psychologist Mavis Hetherington’s work following 2,500 children of divorce also showed about 80-percent of the kids doing well, as did a 2012 meta-survey analyzing about a thousand studies on childhood adjustment done over the last four decades, conducted by child development expert and Cambridge University professor Michael Lamb. 

Michael Lamb’s meta-study sums up what children really need: 

  • Children do well when they have good relationships with both parents, and those parents get along.  But those parents need not be married or living in the same house.
  • Children benefit from having parents who are emotionally recuperated enough to focus on the basic job of parenting, including establishing stability and fair discipline, and providing love and emotional responsiveness.  But those parents need not be married or living in the same house.
  • Kids need adequate resources such as food, safe housing, and social support.  But they don’t need a mansion with every toy available and, you guessed it, those resources can be provided by parents who are not married or living in the same house.

What Lamb’s exhaustive overview, and the work of dozens of other scholars shows, is that marriage isn’t what matters so much, but rather a loving relationship with parents or parent-types who aren’t embroiled in conflict, and a decent home life. 

“The mere fact that the majority of children raised in single-parent or divorced families are well-adjusted undercuts the argument that children 'need' to be raised in traditional families.  These process factors, rather than family structure, affect adjustment in both traditional and non-traditional families,” said Lamb. 

Divorce is a subset of parenting, not some freakish outlier experience.  You have a great deal of control over the home life and the quality of the relationships you create for your children. 

You already know how to be a good parent.  Don't be afraid to continue doing what you know. 

* This post originally appeared on Wendy Paris's website, wendyparis.com. 


Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.