The Children of Divorce: Loss of Family as Loss of Being
By Andrew Root
Baker Academic Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2010
Reviewed by Don Harting
Andrew Root writes like the well-educated man he is. Root holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary and teaches in the youth and family ministry department at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. His trendy, youth-friendly website, andrewroot.org, describes him as a professor, author, speaker, and thinker. He has written 10 other books, all falling loosely within the category of youth ministry.
The Children of Divorce appears to be written for very educated readers, perhaps clergy members with master’s or doctoral degrees in divinity. The six ministry leaders who recommend his book on the back cover all work at seminaries, universities, or youth agencies. Root spends quite a bit of time examining divorce from the perspective of famous philosophers and theologians. The sources he draws from most heavily include a British sociologist named Anthony Giddens (born 1938), a German philosopher named Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), and a Swiss theologian named Karl Barth (1886-1968).
Root has also steeped himself in the current literature about children of divorce in late 20th and early 21st century America. He makes frequent reference to some of the leading researchers and writers, including Stephanie Coontz, Elizabeth Marquardt, Sarah McClanahan, David Royko, Gary Sandefur, Stephanie Staal, Judith Wallerstein, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.
Root’s major point – which he returns to repeatedly – is that parental divorce shakes the very core of a child’s being in a way that few other losses, including death, can match. This is so, he argues, because divorce represents a disintegration of the union that brought the child into the world in the first place. Here’s a good example, from page 50:
“When divorce strikes it impacts young people at the level of their lived world. It radically changes their social environment, but more significantly, it rearranges their inner concept of the environment of the self. They have known their ‘I’ through the lived world of their mom and dad. The child’s very ‘I’ knows itself, but more radically, it is at all because the social environment of Mom and Dad provides the ‘I’ of the child a lived world she has taken into herself and made her own. When her social environment implodes, her lived world is shaken, and to such a degree that she is forced to even question her ‘I.’
Here’s another example, from page 53:
“Divorce thrusts the child into anxiety because it strikes the dependability of the social unit that is responsible for his or her being. It thrusts a division within the child’s own identity. He is cared for and need not fear for his next meal, for example, but he is anxious, for the very union that is responsible for his existence has regretted and aborted its unity of being. He is because they are. But now the they is not and will never be again. What then is the meaning of his existence when the they is now divided?”
A key philosophical term Root uses often is ontology. Webster’s tells us this is a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being. Root frequently asserts that divorce threatens a child’s being, existence, and ontological security.
I can’t argue with the author’s central point that divorce strikes deep at the root – get it? -- of a person’s being. This is undoubtedly true, and sad, because divorce has become so widespread in America today. Reading this book has been a painful reminder of divorce-related hurts in my own family. However, Root makes the ontological point so many times that it becomes a bit repetitive. Perhaps this is forgivable, because Root is a child of divorced parents and at some level might have still been processing his loss as he wrote this book. His mother and father divorced when he was in graduate school and engaged to be married. Root’s fiancee’s parents also announced their divorce about the same time, leading to a most unusual circumstance at the time of their wedding: one marriage was beginning while two others had just ended.
Another critique: despite several references to the field of psychology, I’m disappointed not to see Root provide a fuller discussion of the normal human response to loss. In my own healing journey, a major Aha! moment came when I realized that there was a term for the cluster of intermittent, uncomfortable, and sometimes baffling emotions I had been feeling since my parents broke up, and that term was grief.
Suggested Ministry Initiatives
Root suggests action steps for youth workers and children’s ministers in the sixth and final chapter. They are broken down into four parts, each corresponding to an important theme of the book. For example, the concept of mirroring is central to Barth’s theory of imago Dei (Latin for image of God). In a nutshell, this theory holds that man derives his being only in relationship with God, yet at the same time, God is only made real in the world – you might say mirrored or reflected – through the actions of his beloved creatures. So seeing and being seen become important ways to affirm a person’s being. Root suggests using the concept of mirroring to help strengthen the weakened sense of self experienced by many children of divorced parents. According to Root, an action step might include approaching tweens and teens to communicate your understanding of the situation. A long drawn-out encounter might be counterproductive, but a brief “Hey, I know this is a really hard time,” sends a message that the child exists and is visible.
Root also encourages allowing multiple ways for kids to express their pain, such as art, drama, or discussion. He strongly suggests holding a panel discussion, allowing kids from divorced families to speak of their experience. “These shared stories of pain and questioning, when spoken, have the power to become a significant part of the narrative quilt of the community.”
The author’s other suggestions include:
· Work to know the stories of the young people with whom you work.
· Spend energy convening places for adults in the congregation to listen to and speak with young people. Inform adults of the importance of seeing and hearing young people and allow young people to see and hear them.
· Assess your routines and rituals, helping young people take ownership of them and make sure they are hospitable to young people. Open space may be just as meaningful as programs.
· Provide opportunities for young people to pray with and for adults in the congregation. The key is that this prayer becomes an act of seeing and hearing one another before God. This must be done with great care, and in such a way that it possesses great significance.
· Weekly programs have power not just in their entertainment value, but also in their ability to become routines and rituals for kids whose home lives may be chaotic and unpredictable.
· Work with the congregation to find ways to bless young people, but don’t allow this to become an empty activity.
· Celebrate juvenile rites of passage, such as Boy Scout achievements, graduations, basketball games, school plays.
· Provide children with space and ways to share their gifts with the community, such as drawing worship bulletin covers, painting pictures to hang in the church building, and performing music during worship.
· Provide young people with a variety of ways to tell their stories. Allow these stories to be painful if necessary, but also remember to celebrate and care for one another in gladness and joy.
My Take on These Ideas
Of the suggestions made above, the easiest, cheapest, and quickest way to start might be with prayer. Simply to break silence and acknowledge before God that a number of children in the community have been hurt by parental divorce and need healing would send a powerful message of affirmation to the affected kids and strengthen their sense of self, as well as their sense of belonging within the congregation. Certain times may be better than others for a prayer like this to be uttered aloud in public. Perhaps such a prayer would be appropriate any time the congregation is focused on the needs of children, for example, when the appointed Scripture reading touches on Jesus’ teachings related to children, or Isaiah’s prophecy of comfort for those who mourn. Another appropriate time for such a prayer may be during a healing service, when many other sorts of hurts, harms, and sorrows are brought before the Great Physician.
The panel discussion idea has merit – panel discussions are fairly easy to organize and can be adapted to a wide variety of topics, including healing from parental divorce. But these events need to be carefully managed. I do not think the panel discussion idea as it is described in Root's book is practical or workable. Embarrassment, hurt feelings, and negative reverberations could result if participants’ grief and pain spill out in an uncontrolled and public manner. Two key points would be to focus the discussion around a positive theme, e.g., how adult panelists have healed from their parents’ divorces; and to select these panelists from outside the congregation. This way, if panelists choose to reveal details of how they’ve been hurt they will not implicate others who may be sitting in the audience. Such a panel discussion would be more complicated and expensive to produce, so it might be a piece to add later.
Don Harting is a medical writer living in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.