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Today’s Slate carries a retrospective on Judith Wallerstein , who died last month, by her professional collaborator Sandra Blakeslee. Wallerstein was one of the first social scientists to study the impact of divorce on children.

Blakeslee opens with a fascinating vignette on how Wallerstein first looked into researching divorce because an encounter with a friend of her daughter’s convinced her that the impact of divorce might be both minor and transient. This was the first generation of children raised with liberalized divorce laws, and it looked to Wallerstein like they were going to make the adjustment reasonably well.

That theory didn’t survive its enounters with the data. Here’s how Blakeslee summarizes the findings of Wallerstein’s life’s work:

  • The effects of divorce on children are not transient. They are long-lasting and profound, persisting well into adulthood.

  • The quality of the post-divorce family is critical. Parents are told “don’t fight” but the issue is much bigger. Beyond custody and visiting plans, children need to be fully supported as they grow up. Few are.

  • Age matters. Little ones, ages 2 to 6, are terrified of abandonment. Elementary-school-age children, 7 to 11, grow resentful when deprived of opportunities they would have had if their parents had stayed together. Preadolescents, ages 11 and 12, can be seduced by what Judy called “the voices of the street.” Many teenagers, taking on the role of parent, become overburdened.

  • Stepfamilies are laden with land mines that no one sees coming.

You knew all that already, of course. But Wallerstein didn’t, and she followed the data. As a social scientist myself, I can tell you, that’s a lot harder than it sounds when you actually have to do it - even when your findings don’t scandalize your peers and damage your career!

Yet today, these findings aren’t scandalous any more. The boundaries can move. Good, sound science like Wallerstein did is part of what helps move them. In spite of social science’s track record, I’m increasingly convinced it’s going to be a more and more constructive contributor to the sum of human wisdom in the century ahead. And on no human subject is wisdom more needed than on this one. Check out the Slate piece.

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