Brokenness … Deep and Wide

 – By Walt Mueller
©2006, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding


When my daughter, Caitlin, was in first grade, I took her to see the elementary school I attended when I was her age. Closed for years, my peek through the windows yielded a trip back in time to 1962. I was amazed that it still looked the same 28 years later, right down to the alphabet choo-choo train hanging on the wall. “I can’t believe this is where you went to first grade,” Caitlin exclaimed as I lifted her to the window so she could see where I had spent a great year with Miss Wallace.

But my amazement changed to puzzlement with Caitlin’s statement. “Why not, Caitlin?” I queried. She answered with amazement, “Because it’s in color!”

Her answer made me feel pretty old. I remember growing up thinking about what it must have been like in the old days for my parents. Somehow all the old pictures and movies left me with the impression that anything that happened in the world before I was born must have been in simple black and white. Now my kid was thinking the same about her old man.

Although the visual colors of the world haven’t changed over the generations, the world has. In many ways, it’s not as simple as it used to be. It’s gotten much more complex. And the rate of change isn’t getting any slower.

A couple years ago I was packing up my stuff after spending a day teaching youth workers about the rapidly changing youth culture. After everyone else had left, a young man came to the front of the room to share his gratitude for my time with the group. “Thanks for teaching us all this stuff about teenagers and their world,” he said. “I’m currently working with kids at a local high school. I go in after school to help them with their homework and to talk about their lives. Every time I walk onto the campus I’m struck by how much things have changed since I was there.” I took a long hard look at him and began to wonder how long it had been since he had been a student. “How old are you?” I asked. “Nineteen,” he answered. “I just graduated from that high school 10 months ago.”

The rate of change is gaining speed. Like a snowball accelerating and growing on a trip down a steep hill, today’s youth culture is changing at breakneck speed. I remember the three Norman Rockwell paintings my parents had hanging on their bedroom wall. My brothers and I wanted to show Mom and Dad our appreciation for the loving home they had provided, so we gave them those pictures on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary. Each of us had carefully chosen a Rockwell painting that said something about our own personal experiences of growing up Mueller.

One of the paintings shows a nervous young man ready to head off for college, sitting with his dad and his suitcase on the running board of the family pickup while waiting for the bus. That was me, the oldest of the boys. I was first to leave home for college, and it hadn’t been easy.

The middle painting on the wall was of a boy precariously balanced on and ready to tumble off a pair of homemade stilts. That was my daredevil brother, Mark. Always trying my parents’ patience with something new and dangerous, Mark spent countless hours on stilts, his unicycle or the tightrope he had built in the backyard. One time my dad even found him teaching himself to eat fire in the garage! Mark eventually went off to clown college.

The third painting was of an intelligent, bespectacled young boy who, with a diploma in hand, was receiving pats of praise from his instructor. That was Ken’s picture. He was the youngest. He reaped the benefits from having two older brothers by capitalizing on our school experience and doing better. This was the kid who read the dictionary in elementary school.

Every time I see those three pictures, I am reminded of my childhood and am thankful for the stable home, full of love, that our parents gave us. When Norman Rockwell, perhaps the most notable period painter of Americana, put his brush on the canvas, I felt like he had painted our family.

Granted, life wasn’t pretty for every kid back then and our family wasn’t by any means perfect, but overall, it was a much simpler and stable time for children and teens. I’ve often wondered, if Norman Rockwell were alive and painting the American childhood experience today, what would his pictures look like? Maybe he would paint the family kitchen, with only half of the members scarfing down a meal while the others were off doing something else. Maybe he would paint a family at home during the evening, each member cloistered in his or her own room while watching TV, playing video games or spending time online. Maybe it would be a picture of a 16-year-old girl driving to school with her books and her baby in the back seat. Or a picture of a third grader arriving home from school—with a cell phone in one hand and iPod in the other—heading into an unsupervised house for several hours of unlimited TV viewing, video-game playing and Internet surfing. Sadly, Rockwell might paint students passing through a metal detector as they arrive at school. Yes, times have changed.

When I recently asked a high-school-aged audience about their family situations, their first-person descriptions, combined with several shows of hand, led me to the conclusion that family meant something different to many of these kids. Some lived with Dad and Mom. Others lived with Mom. Some with Dad. Some with neither. A few didn’t know either one or both of their parents. The words divorce, separation, abandonment and abuse came up far too often.

Sadly, those responses are becoming more and more typical. You and I are living in a period of unprecedented and historic change in family composition, family life and family experience. This radical shift in family patterns can’t help but affect our kids, creating more stress and confusion. This shift is both the result and cause of a growing amount of childhood heartache, pain and difficulty.

From the beginning of time, God instituted the family to be the place children are born into, loved, nurtured and led to a spiritually, emotionally and physically healthy adulthood. Children need a mother and father who love God, who love each other, and who love their kids. Anything less, and the family fails to exist and function as it was meant to be.

Jack and Judy Balswick suggest that the family is to be a place where individuals love and are loved, forgive and are forgiven, serve and are served, and know and are known. As such, it is meant to be a place of covenant, grace, empowering and intimacy.1 While he might not define the functions of the family in the same manner, David Elkind certainly knows that the family is not functioning as it should be. In his 1984 book All Grown Up & No Place To Go, Elkind used the term “family permutations” to describe the increased breakdown of the family. When these rearrangements of existing elements occur, “children and teenagers tend to lose their special place in the family structure.”2 In the same book, he offers a convincing argument that these changes force children and teens into “premature adulthood.” No longer allowed to be children, what results is stress and its aftermath. It should come as no surprise that Elkind titled his 1994 book on changing family relationships Ties That Stress.3

What are some of the disruptions, “permutations” and changes taking place in the American family?

The first change is the increase and acceptance of divorce. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s combined with a changing moral climate, rising individualism and other factors to lower our collective view of marriage, thus leading to a rise in divorce. In 1977 I wrote a college paper in a social problems class on the stigma associated with divorce. At the time, there was plenty of data pointing to the fact that the prevailing view in our culture was that those who divorced were doing something dishonorable. No doubt, there were cases of justifiable divorce at the time. What was different was that divorce was not widely viewed or embraced as an easy way out of marriage. In today’s social climate, my paper would get a failing grade.

In 2004, there were 7.8 marriages per 1,000 people (2,279,000) and 3.7 divorces per 1,000 people.4 “The American divorce rate today is nearly twice that of 1960, but has declined slightly since hitting the highest point in our history in the early 1980s.”5 On the surface, this may seem like a move in the right direction—and in some ways it is. But don’t forget that during the same time, the number of cohabitating couples and out-of-wedlock births increased as well. Fewer and fewer people are getting married. Although some states no longer tabulate annual divorce statistics, it is estimated that there are as many as 1.2 million divorces finalized each year in the United States. Consequently, each year 1 million children go through the emotional tug-of-war of seeing their parents divorce.6 “For the average couple marrying in recent years, the lifetime probability of divorce or separation remains between 40 and 50 percent.”7 It is estimated that up to 60 percent of the children born in the ‘90s—today’s children and teens—will live in a single-parent home for part of their childhood.8

All of these stats add up to this sad fact: The U.S. has the highest divorce rate and the highest proportion of children affected by divorce in the developed world!9 These changes led the Council on Families in America to conclude, “Our nation has largely shifted from a culture of marriage to a culture of divorce. Once we were a nation in which a strong marriage was seen as the best route to achieving the American dream. We have now become a nation in which divorce is commonly seen as the path to personal liberation.”10 TV’s Mr. Rogers testified best to these changes back in 1990: “If someone told me 20 years ago that I was going to produce a whole week on divorce, I never would have believed them.”11

My one-on-one conversations with and observation of children of divorce have led me to a deeper understanding of the toll that divorce takes on our kids. The family was created by God as the basic unit and building block of society. It is the unit into which we are born and where we find our identity, are socialized and are nurtured. The increased incidence and acceptance of divorce indicates that, in many cases, the building block is falling apart.

In her study on the effects of divorce on middle-class families, Judith Wallerstein discovered that divorce hurts children deeply and for a long time. Nearly half of these children enter adulthood under-achieving, worried, angry and disapproving of themselves. Three in five of these children feel rejected by one or both parents. Forty percent set no specific goals as they enter adulthood. Many of the children (particularly females) enter adulthood carrying a load of guilt and anxiety that leads to multiple relationships and impulsive, early marriages that end in divorce.

Her study also concluded that children of divorce are plagued by a variety of other problems, including rebellion, depression, discipline problems, grief, guilt, fear, an inability to concentrate and an inability to trust.12 She writes, “National studies show that children from divorced and remarried families are more aggressive toward their parents and teachers. They experience more depression, have more learning difficulties, and suffer from more problems with peers than children from intact families. Children from divorced and remarried families are two to three times more likely to be referred for psychological help at school than their peers from intact families. More of them end up in mental health clinics and hospital settings.”13

In addition, researchers at the National Marriage Project found that “many of today’s youth problems can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to the decline of marriage. This includes high rates of juvenile delinquency, suicide, substance abuse, child poverty, mental illness, and emotional instability.’14 Research also shows that these issues and problems aren’t unique to the adolescent years. Children of divorce carry them and their fallout through their adult years.

As our society changes, husbands and wives become more committed to being uncommitted. The result is that more and more children suffer.

A second change is the rise in cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births. A lower view of marriage has combined with changing morals and the experiences of so many adults having grown up in families where marriages fell apart, to leave a growing number of people ready to live together and have families, without the willingness to commit. In 2004, 36 percent of all births were to unmarried women.15 This is an increase from less than 5 percent in the mid-1960s.16 Some of these mothers were living with the child’s father. Some were not. Of these 1,470,000 births to unmarried women, 349,000 were to women under the age of 20, and 6,600 of those to girls under the age of 15 years.17 “Eighteen percent of children living with single biological or adoptive fathers and 11 percent of children living with single biological or adoptive mothers also live with their parent’s cohabitating partner. Overall, 4.3 million children lived with a parent or parents who were cohabitating.18 Since 1970, the number of people living together outside of marriage has increased by over 1,000 percent.19

Not only do these trends affect children’s well-being as they grow through childhood and adolescence, but they also influence the growing child’s own view of marriage. The 2003 Gallup Youth Survey specifically asked teens about their views on cohabitation. A significant majority (70 percent) of teens say they approve of couples living together prior to marriage. As might be expected, 85 percent of teens who do not attend church approve of pre-marital cohabitation. But alarmingly, 50 percent of teens who regularly attend church approve of couples living together before marriage.20 Clearly, the culture is influencing our kids’ values and attitudes.

A third change is the crisis of fatherlessness. Tonight, some 34 percent of our nation’s children and teens will go to bed in a home where their biological father does not live.21 Some estimate that almost 60 percent of the children born in the 1990s will spend some part of their childhood in a fatherless home.22 Sadly, more and more children don’t even know who their fathers are. Almost 40 percent of children in father-absent homes have not seen their father at all over the course of the past year, 26 percent of absent fathers live in a different state, and 50 percent of children who live without their father have never been in their father’s home.23 Millions of other children are growing up in a home where their fathers may be physically present but are spiritually or emotionally detached.

The consequences are grave. We now know that father absence is the variable in the present and future well-being of teens. Children who grow through the difficult, challenging and formative years of adolescence without their dads have a greater risk of suffering from emotional and behavioral problems such as sexual promiscuity, premarital teen pregnancy, substance abuse, depression, suicide, lower academic performance, dropping out of school, intimacy dysfunction, divorce and poverty. It is no surprise to learn that 60 percent of America’s rapists, 72 percent of adolescent murderers and 70 percent of long-term prison inmates grew up without a dad.24

A fourth change in the family that affects our children and teens is the increasing number of mothers who work outside the home.In 1960, 39 percent of mothers with school-age children were working outside the home. In 1987, 70 percent of mothers with school-age children had such jobs.25 By 2001, 78 percent were in the labor force.26 While the trend has been for more and more mothers to juggle jobs and families, it appears that this trend may be shifting. A growing number of mothers are choosing to leave the workforce and stay home with their kids.

A fifth change is the decreasing amount of time parents spend with their children. Men and women in high-pressure careers often work more than 40 hours a week and bring home work pressures and economic worries. Children are the ones who get shortchanged. The ongoing myth of “quality time vs. quantity time” is often invoked to justify absence from the kids. When asked about their wishes for a better life, 27 percent of high school students wanted “more money to buy items such as televisions and cars,” and 14 percent wished for “a bigger house.” But the overwhelming majority of high school students—46 percent—wished for “more time spent together with family.”27

Carl Zwerner grew up in a home with a father whose life was his auto-parts business. Swearing he wouldn’t make the same mistake with his own family, Carl began a glass-import business. “Like his father, he worked 10 and 12 hour days, with little time for his wife and three children. Home life was a joke, he says. ‘Can you picture changing a kid’s diaper and all you’re thinking about is the next day’s paperwork? How much caring can even happen there?’ Even on drives to his children’s camp in North Carolina, ‘I would stop and see customers on the way.’ After 19 years, Mr. Zwerner and his wife divorced. When it comes to business, the long hours may pay off. When it comes to family life, everybody loses.”28

Sixth, more and more children and teens are victims of family violence. It’s frightening to think that much of our nation’s child abuse and sexual abuse goes unreported. The statistics that are available are frightening enough. It’s believed that by the age of 16, one out of every four girls29 in the United States and one out of every six boys is sexually abused.30 Most of the abuse is perpetrated by a parent, sibling or close relative. In addition, studies indicate that between 3.3 million and 10 million children are exposed to domestic violence annually.31 Some of that violence is the direct result of alcoholism in the family.

Children who are exposed to or are victims of physical and sexual violence are more likely to become perpetrators of violence themselves. They’re also more likely to exhibit a variety of health and behavioral problems as they grow up, including depression, anxiety, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse.

It is no coincidence that the increasing difficulty of living through the adolescent years parallels an increase in divorce, sexual abuse, violence, alcoholism and the time parents spend outside of the home. Likewise, the decreasing quality of life for teens corresponds to decreases in family time, two-parent families and marital commitment.

Home used to be a place of refuge and a source of much-needed resiliency for kids growing through the normal difficulties of the adolescent years. I remember how great I felt entering the warmth of my house after battling the pressures and expectations of my peers at the war zone known as middle school. As I noted earlier, my family was by no means perfect, but I at least knew that when I got home, I could open the door and walk into never-ending encouragement, acceptance and love.

Unfortunately, teens today don’t share my experience. Some time ago, after being away with a group of kids on an exciting senior high retreat, I noticed that every kid on the bus was asleep—except for Meg. She was staring out the window. The tears running down her cheeks told me she was thinking about more than the passing scenery. I thought she might be disappointed the weekend had come to an end. “Sure, I’m sad the weekend is over,” she said. “But that’s not what I’m crying about. My dad hasn’t talked to me or my mom in weeks. He just sits in his chair and watches TV. My mom’s an emotional basket case. Sometimes I feel like I’m her mother. And my brother—he yells at all of us. I don’t want to go back home.” Meg’s home had become a war zone.

Meg’s sad story is only one example of how the changing face of the family is taking its toll on kids.

The result is a hunger for genuine and meaningful relationships so pervasive among teenagers and young adults today that experts cite “relational deprivation” as one of the marks of today’s emerging generations. Our children and teens were created to be in relationship. Humanly speaking, the primary relationship for which they were made is one with dad and mom. Today’s teenagers desire real relationships that are characterized by depth, vulnerability, openness, listening and love—connectedness in their disconnected, confusing and alienated world.

Broken relationships lead to deep brokenness. Deep brokenness responds to relationship. What will we—parents, the church, youth workers, etc.—do about it?

1 Jack O. Balswick and Judith K. Balswick, The Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1989), 21ff.

2 Elkind, All Grown Up & No Place To Go, 115.

3 David Elkind, Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).

4 “Marriage and Divorce,” National Center for Health Statistics, 28 February, 2006, (19 April 2006).

5 “The State Of Our Unions: The Social Health Of Marriage In America” (Piscataway, N.J.: The National Marriage Project, 2005), 18.

6 “U.S. Divorce Statistics,” Divorce, 2005, (19 April 2006).

7 “The State Of Our Unions,” 18.

8 Frank F. Furstenburg Jr., and Andrew J. Cherlin, Divided Families: What Happens to Children When Parents Part(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 11.

9, 2002 (20 April 2006).

10 “Marriage in America: A Report to the Nation” (New York: Institute for American Values, 1995), 8.

11 Overheard, Newsweek, special edition, winter/spring 1990, 11.

12 Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade after Divorce(New York: Tickner & Fields, 1989).

13 Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study (New York: Hyperion, 2000), xxiii.

14 David Popenoe, “Marriage Decline in America,” 22 May 2001, (20 April 2006).

15 “Preliminary Births for 2004,” (National Center for Health Statistics, 19 January 2006), (20 April 2006).

16 “Helping Unwed Parents Build Strong and Healthy Marriages: A Conceptual Framework for Interventions, United States Department of Health and Human Services – Administration for Children and Families, 15 January 2002,

_framework/framework_chp1.html (20 April 2006).

17 Ibid.

18 America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2005, (Washington, D.C.: Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2005), 9.

19 Popenoe, “Marriage Decline in America.”

20 “Moving In: Teen Views on Cohabitation” (Princeton, N.J.: The Gallup Poll, 8 April 2003), (20 April 2006).

21 Wade F. Horn and Tom Sylvester, Father Facts, 4th ed. (National Fatherhood Initiative, 2002), 15.

22 Wade F. Horn, Father Facts (Lancaster, Pa.: National Fatherhood Initiative, 1995), ii.

23 Horn and Sylvester, Father Facts, 15.

24 Ibid., 106-111.

25 Code Blue.

26 Maternal and Child Health Bureau, “Child Health USA 2002: Population Characteristics,” (20 April 2006).

27 The State Of Our Nation’s Youth: 2005-2006, 32.

28 Mark Robichaux, “Business First, Family Second,” The Wall Street Journal, 12 May 1989.

29 Tamar Lewin, “Sexual Abuse Tied to 1 in 4 Girls in Teens,” The New York Times on the Web Women’s Health, 1 October 1997, (20 April 2006).

30 “Fact Sheet: Sexual Abuse of Boys,” Prevent Child Abuse America, (20 April 2006).

31 “The Facts on Children and Domestic Violence,” Family Violence Prevention Fund, (20 April 2006).

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