In The Children of Divorce, Andrew Root provides a challenging assessment of the adverse effects of divorce on children by articulating the damage in ontological terms. This thought-provoking book is part of Baker Academic’s Youth, Family, and Culture Series which aims to “raise the level of dialogue concerning how we think about, teach, and live out youth ministry” (vii). Root’s text fits well with the aims of this Series by offering a thoroughgoing study that integrates history, social theory, psychology, philosophy and theology into one sustained argument. His work is intended for Christian youth ministers, although it would be a worthwhile, if somewhat difficult, read for anyone who ministers to divorced families or the families themselves. By seamlessly weaving his personal story of his parent’s divorce as well as several interviews conducted with children of divorce with his ontological argument he allows the often overlooked perspectives of children to become key contributors throughout the book.
Beginning with a brief historical sketch of the Western family, Root finds that our contemporary view of marriage “for love” places children in a tenuous position as their self becomes defined within an increasingly “risky” arrangement. He then employs Anthony Giddens’ social theory to map out his core thesis that the “being” of children is at risk when divorce occurs because their ontological security is anchored upon their parent’s union. Much of his argument hinges on his use of “being”. Rather than defining being in terms of substance, Root chooses to follow Heidegger’s lead and articulates the priority of relationship in ontology. Being is “being-with.” This notable shift allows him to state that the ontological security of the child is dependent upon the continued existence of the community that “produces” the child and grounds his being-in-relationship.
Thus, he continuously singles out the family, founded upon the marriage of one’s biological parents, as the best setting for providing ontological security for the child. When this biological family is destroyed by divorce, anxiety and a lack of trust become defining features for the child. He then relates this ontological argument to the theological anthropology of Karl Barth, perceptively noting that Barth’s relational view of the self provides a necessary theological ground to previous philosophical argumentation. In a poignant, and, at least to this reader, somewhat unconvincing argument, he even states that one’s “being” is more thrown into question through divorce than through the death of a parent. If nothing else, this statement serves to underscore his strong understanding of the relational (and hence ontological) priority of the parental bond for the child. When this bond is freely broken, the child’s being is thrown into question.
In the final chapter, Root supplies a worthwhile pastoral reflection on his foregoing argument. He urges the local church to become more involved as the community wherein the child of divorce can construct a fruitful image of self in relation with others after her ontological ground has been torn asunder by divorce. He offers sound practical advice for pastoral ministers, parents and friends of divorced children so that they can help these children ground their being within a caring community. This was a challenging ecclesiological model and it fit well with his sense of the Church as a place where Christians are called to suffer with others.
The Children of Divorce makes a bold argument regarding the adverse effects of marital dissolution on children, but one wonders if too much is staked on the ontological priority of the biological family. Does a child who never knew his father need his active presence in a committed relationship to be ontologically secure? Can non-traditional families function to provide the needed ontological security that children need (as the church seemingly does in the final chapter)? Also, the way in which he stresses the degree to which one’s self is defined by others at times leaves little room for the agency of the person in question. Nevertheless, even though some reservations exist on the ontological necessity of an intact, biological family, there is little doubt that his relational focus is required if we are to take adequate stock of the harm done by divorce in an increasingly individualized American context.
Root’s text does well to challenge many readers to consider the lasting effects of divorce on children through a careful, interdisciplinary study. It provides two key additions to literature on divorce. First, by reframing the issue in ontological terms, he raises the stakes of divorce. Second, placing children at the center of his inquiry gives them a voice that is often lacking in assessments of the effects of divorce. Readers would do well to attend to these two significant contributions made by Root in hopes of strengthening current pastoral practice toward divorced families.