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What The Divorce Revolution Has Meant For Kids

The 1970s saw changes great and small in American society. More women began to move into the workforce and began to define themselves as more than wives, mothers or girlfriends.

While men grew their hair and wore flowered shirts, children were listening to Marlo Thomas singing "Free to Be... You and Me."

Gender roles were changing. It was OK for Mom to be a doctor and Dad to be a nurse. It was also increasingly OK to leave behind the confines of marriage. The divorce rate, which had begun to climb in the 1960s, soared in the 1970s, as states began to adopt no-fault divorce laws.

But what did the 1970s divorce boom mean for the kids?

Producer Sasha Aslanian spent five years working on a documentary about the children of divorce. Here's some of what she found:

Kramer vs. Kramer was the quintessential divorce movie of the 1970s. It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 1979. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep starred as the estranged couple, locked in a custody battle over their young son.

But the child they were fighting over doesn't have much of a voice in the movie. It's more a drama about his parents.

Avery Corman wrote the novel the movie was based on.

"I know when I saw a screening of it in a movie house for the first time, when I got up, there were kids all around kind of slumped all in their seats," Corman says. "And I knew exactly who they were."

Corman himself was a child of divorce. And in his neighborhood in the Bronx in the 1940s, that was something deeply shameful.

"It was a kind of family secret, so to say. And as a result, I think I was walking around with a secret," he says. "And I think I just became more of a remote kid than I might have normally been."

By the time he wrote Kramer vs. Kramer in the mid-'70s, divorce was much more commonplace and the stigma was rapidly disappearing.

But Corman still guarded his own secret. After Kramer came out, a schoolgirl from the Midwest wrote to him.

"Were your parents divorced?" she asked.

It took a child to see right through.

A Generation Of Divorce

A few years ago, my daughters were playing in their bedroom. They were listening to a tape of Barney songs. You know, Barney — the purple dinosaur from public television. The lyrics Barney and his little friends were singing caught my ear:

"There's a girl I know who lives with her mom. Her dad lives far away. Although she sees her parents just one at a time, they both love her every day!"

When I was growing up in the '70s, I don't remember any songs like this, about how all families were terrific no matter what they looked like. I'm glad kids have that nowadays.

A few years ago, I was helping my mom clean out her basement. She handed me a box of unlabeled reel-to-reel tapes. She wasn't sure what was on them. I took them home and discovered one of them contained this:

"I, Paul Aslanian ... take thee, Solfrid Ladstein..."

I was 10 when my parents told me they were separating. They stayed on good terms. My mom moved two blocks away and my little brother and I piled our clothes in laundry baskets and moved back and forth — spending two weeks with Mom and two weeks with Dad.

"I have two bedrooms," I'd brag to other kids. I didn't want anyone feeling sorry for me. I bristled at the term "broken home." I was fine.

It wasn't until much later — in adulthood — I let down my guard a little bit. How had the divorce affected me?

And not just me — a generation and society?

A Courthouse Innovation

The courts have figured out divorce is here to stay, so they might as well get better at it.

Hennepin County, Minn., is one place that's taken aggressive steps for the sake of the kids.

"We wanted to get kids out of middle of messy custody fights," says Judge James Swenson, who joined the family court bench in Minneapolis 15 years ago. When he started, the cases that made it to his chambers were already 12 to 18 months old — plenty of time for rancor and bitterness to set in.

So in 2000, Hennepin Country tried something different. At the first meeting with the judge right after filing for divorce, there would be no motions. No judicial robes. And the attorneys would sit on the sidelines.

"The judge would sit down with parties and talk to them about such things as childhood development. What they could do to help their kids. What would send their kids' mental health south real fast. What they could do to preserve some of their assets for their kids' extracurricular activities or college, rather than the lawyers' kids' extracurricular activities and college," Swenson says.

After the initial meeting, the couple would come back a few weeks later and meet with a male and a female custody evaluator. They would try to come up with a reasonable plan that everyone could buy into. A separate meeting dealt with the financial part of divorce.

An astonishing thing happened: 65 percent of cases settled within 30 days.

Swenson jokes that it was an absolute boon for judges. Swenson's time in trial dropped by more than a third.

"And the number of cases that I had where it was highly vitriolic, with really ugly testimony and warring by the lawyers, dropped off the edge of a cliff," he says.

In early 2009, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government cited Hennepin County's program as one of the top 50 innovations in government.

'It's Not Your Fault'

Most states now require divorcing couples to complete a parenting program. Sometimes kids have to take classes, too. I visited one in Hennepin County in 2005, run by a nonprofit called Storefront.

Instructor Shawn Neel led 10- to 12-year-olds through a discussion.

"Is it ever really a kid's fault that adults can't solve their problems?" Neel asked.

"No," the kids replied.

"Does that sound silly?" he continued.

"That's what my dad said. He said that 'It's not your fault you're getting — we're getting divorced,' " said one child, Lizzy Kaltenhauser.

But these fourth- and fifth-graders still had had plenty of exposure to adult problems. Stories flowed about alcohol and fights. The kids even used terms like "anger management problems."

They practiced role-playing how to avoid divorce traps — like being asked to spy on the other parent or parents who spew venom about each other.

But the kids seemed to know they were out of their depth dealing with unhappy parents. Here's Lizzy's take: "It's like when you watch a grown-up movie. You don't want to know about this stuff yet."

'Is This A Rewinding Movie?'

Three years later, I go to visit Lizzy at her dad's house. She's 12 and now goes by "Ellie" instead of "Lizzy."

In three years, her family has changed a lot. "I have three brothers, and a new stepmom. She's amazing — most of the time, at least," she says. "She's really nice when she's not being a neat freak. But, yeah, it's pretty good!"

Ellie's pretty typical of a divorced kid. Not too many years have passed, but she and her brother, Ben, have gained a stepmom, a stepbrother — also named Ben — and Daniel, a half-brother who was 1 1/2 at the time of my visit.

It's a lively household, with white pet rat named Sugar in a cage in the living room and a big trampoline out back. Two weekends a month and Tuesday evenings, Ellie and her first brother Ben spend time with their mom. Ellie seems chipper about life in both households. I ask her what she remembers from the divorce class.

"Something that usually I learn in class goes through one ear and out the other, but I remember mostly about drawing pictures and telling the teacher what we think about our parents and how they yell and stuff," she says.

Ellie says it felt good to meet the other kids and talk about their experiences, even if she never saw them again. The class is a positive, if hazy, memory for Ellie.

In that class, Ellie had described divorce as watching a grown-up movie she wasn't old enough to understand.

It hasn't gone away.

"My stepmom and my dad were actually fighting and I just felt like — is this a rewinding movie? Like, did it rewind? I mean, it felt exactly how my parents fought."

Ellie's rewinding movie may be difficult for her to shut off.

When I dug into this topic five years ago, I thought the story would be how children of the divorce revolution aren't all messed up. We're not the truants and drug addicts the '70s pop psychologists predicted we'd be. But it also wasn't quite true that if our parents were better off getting out of the marriage, we kids would be too.

Social scientists have had decades to study the children of divorce. They confirm some of our worst fears. We're about 50 percent more likely to fail in our own marriages.

But it doesn't stop us from trying. After 12 years of dating, I made it to the altar. I even tempted fate and wore my mother's wedding dress.

I still believe in love.

Even for divorced kids.

To listen to Sasha Aslanian's hour-long radio documentary and see more photos, visit the "Divorced Kid" site.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sasha Aslanian