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Home News Harry Benson’s marriage lines: Broken homes, broken children

Harry Benson’s marriage lines: Broken homes, broken children

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The UK has the highest level of family instability in the entire developed world. Our epidemic levels of family breakdown were highlighted in a recent international analysis by the Social Trends Institute.

Yet as a nation we seem to be completely unaware of what is happening to us.

Our own analysis at Marriage Foundation confirmed that a quarter of all our two-year-olds and nearly half, 45 per cent, of all teenagers are not living with both natural parents.

In hard numbers, that equates to a fresh cohort of 300,000 children every single year who’ll conclude their GCSEs without the daily presence, input, role modelling, encouragement, training, discipline and love of both father and mother in the house.

Is this crisis of numbers one that you have ever heard discussed in these terms at PMQs? Or on the Today programme? On the BBC news? No. Family breakdown has been normalised and the kids just have to get along with it.

Of course lone parents can and do an amazing job; that goes without saying. Having brought up our own children with two pairs of hands and barely coped at times, I have no idea how my lone parent friends manage.

And there’s the rub.

There’s a reason why it takes two people to make a baby. It’s so that two people can between them earn the money, pay the bills, clean the house, do the shopping, cook the food, tidy up . . . as well as nurture and care for their children and each other.

The irony is that few of those bringing up children on their own will tell you that lone parenthood was their dream, the lifestyle choice, the preferred option.

As for the children, they know nothing else. Most cope. But a great many don’t.

Also deafening in its absence from discussions on the Today programme or questions in Parliament is one other critical fact or number. Not having a father in the house is the number one factor associated with teenage mental health problems. This is what research conducted for Marriage Foundation conclusively found.

Our analysis of Millennium Cohort study data from 10,929 mothers with 14-year-old children revealed that mental health problems were especially prevalent among children whose parents split up. We found problems were also more common among children whose parents were not married when the child was born, or who were least certain of their relationship stability and happiness at that time.

My two youngest children, both teenagers, are in school classes where half their schoolmates or more are living only with their mum. Their experience matches the national statistics. I asked one of my children how he knew who they were. Obvious, he said. They are the annoying ones. As my wife often reminds me, difficult people are people who are in difficulty.

As adults, we appear untroubled by the sheer scale of family breakdown and its consequences for children, as if we don’t want to see it. But the evidence is all around if we open our eyes.

Ask the teachers. They know. They will tell you about Sammy, who turned into a thorough nuisance after his dad left home. Or they’ll remark on Alice, who would be doing so much better at school if she wasn’t piggy in the middle between her warring parents.

Ask the doctors faced by a deluge of teenage mental health problems, many of which are the direct result of this loss of identity. Their mixed-up family lives often leave children not knowing where they come from or who they are.

Ask the judges who see a stream of human misery pass through the family courts as angry couples take it out on each other at the expense of their children.

If anyone asked the children, they would tell you too.

This article updates and expands upon an extract from the book What Mums Want and Dads Need to Know by Harry & Kate Benson

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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and author of Commit or Quit: The Two Year Rule and Other Rules for Romance.

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