Is Massachusetts Shaming Divorced Parents?

In Massachusetts, anyone with children seeking a divorce is required to take a parenting class. Whether it does any good, well, that’s another matter.

Illustration by Benjamen Purvis

On a Monday afternoon this summer, when I should have been working, I closed down Slack, shut my bedroom door for privacy, and joined a Zoom call with some 30 strangers. All of us had set aside two and a half hours of our workday, and the same amount of time two days later, to attend a state-ordered parenting class. What had I done to deserve this? I had never abused or neglected my children—one of two reasons the state forces people to attend parenting courses—nor necessarily had any other parents on the call. We were all here because we had decided to get divorced in Massachusetts, and that meant we didn’t have a choice.

The intervention, in my case at least, felt unnecessary at best and infuriating at worst. I’d been a parent for nearly 15 years by the time I logged into the course, and my ex and I—already separated for more than three years—had long ago agreed on the division of our possessions and assets, and on custody and visitation. My two daughters, by all accounts, are not only well adjusted, but are thriving socially, academically, and at home.

Yet in the 1990s the Massachusetts legislature and courts determined that it would be in the best interests of children for all parents who are splitting up—no matter how amicably, no matter how long they have been
living apart—to take a class about the effects of divorce on children. Using videos, PowerPoint presentations, and breakout discussion groups, the courses emphasize that it isn’t good to fight in front of children and seek to improve relations between divorcing parents. Classes with similar goals now exist nearly everywhere in the country, although in most places they are mandated only for parents in contested divorces. Massachusetts is one of just 17 states to require them in all cases. The result is a booming industry: Last year nearly 10,000 parents in the Bay State took the classes from any one of 24 private, nonprofit providers, paying $80 a pop in most cases. With COVID-19 placing unprecedented stress on marriages, and reports of a pandemic-era surge in divorce filings, that number could well increase this year and next.

Long before I even joined the Zoom call, though, I began to find the whole exercise troubling. I consider myself to be a good mom, even if I do make mistakes. I am in no way opposed to self-improvement—in fact, I work hard at it. There is no area of my life that I consider more important than how I parent. What I resented was being told I needed a parenting class simply because I had made the protracted, heart-rending, and ultimately wise decision to end my marriage of 13 years.

I am not alone in my concerns. Feminist scholar and Spelman College assistant professor Moon Charania’s research on these types of courses led her to conclude that they are based on the foundational assumption that divorcing couples “will inevitably be bad parents, by being selfish, having fewer boundaries with their children, and disregarding their children’s emotional state. But the facts are that if one is a good parent as a married individual, one will continue to be a good parent as a divorced individual. Marriage does not determine parenting.”

It is also true that bad parenting occurs in many marriages that never end in divorce. Yet no one would suggest that all married parents should take a court-ordered class, Charania says, because in the eyes of the state, they are in the only relationship suitable for raising healthy children. It is also because the Supreme Court has ruled that the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from interference in parenting. This, says legal scholar Tali Schaefer, who wrote about these kinds of parenting courses for the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, is because the law generally assumes parents who are fit will act in the best interests of their children. When it comes to divorcing couples, she says, the guiding assumption is that while they may not be legally unfit to parent, they aren’t “entirely fit.”

The courts in Massachusetts are guided by another dubious assumption—that these courses actually make a difference. As I discovered, however, there does not appear to be any credible evidence that they have a positive effect on parental behavior or that they provide any benefits to children.

All of which leads to the question: Why are we still forcing parents who are already going through one of the toughest experiences of their lives to take them? As a society, we’ve made great progress breaking down the rigid notions of what constitutes a family and what it means to be a good parent. Watching those faces appear in the little Zoom squares that Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder why Massachusetts continues to clutch to outmoded and misinformed notions about divorce and the parents—like me—who decide to choose it.

The first courses for divorcing parents in the nation appeared in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s and ’90s—when the country was in the grips of multiple moral panics over gay marriage, abortion, sex education, single motherhood, and, more broadly, the perceived demise of the traditional family—that they really took off. Massachusetts was swept into the trend in 1993 when the state legislature authorized courts to start pilot programs, which the courts launched in select counties two years later; by 2008, the courts themselves made the courses mandatory across the commonwealth.

That judges were the driving force behind the spread of these courses in the United States is telling. After all, they typically only see the protracted divorces that go to trial. These are often the most acrimonious cases, where the worst behavior is on display. “The heavily contested divorces that fill up judges’ schedules and stick in their minds are the ones which cement their negative view of parents,” Schaefer writes in her study. Despite this narrow glimpse at couples who divorce, judges lobbied legislators to sponsor bills mandating the courses in many cases for all divorcing parents.

The arguments made by some lawmakers in favor of establishing these courses in the ’90s and early aughts, meanwhile, provide a valuable window into the way they viewed divorcing parents. Schaefer, who listened to hours of tape from legislative sessions around the country, heard a politician argue that the courses were the only thing preventing a generation of dysfunctional children from growing up to be dysfunctional adults. Another said the classes would save our prisons from being overrun with “divorce kids.” One legislator even spoke of a divorcing parent who murdered his child, suggesting he might not have done it if only he had attended the course.

Behind these clearly hyperbolic statements, there is an underlying and firmly held belief that children of divorced parents are worse off emotionally than their peers with married parents. There is plenty of research, however, that contradicts this. In a meta-review of hundreds of empirical studies published over the past four decades, a researcher from the University of Cambridge in England found that family structure, including divorce, was of little to no importance in predicting psychological outcomes in children. And a landmark 2002 study of 2,500 children with divorced parents in the United States, conducted over the course of 30 years, concluded that after going through an initial period of disruption, 75 to 80 percent of children and adolescents from divorced families develop into reasonably or exceptionally well-adjusted individuals.

In my class, though, the instructors took that same data and spun it the other way, putting up a slide stating that 25 percent of children are negatively affected by divorce. “We are trying to get you out of that 25 percent,” one of the course leaders told us. It sounded like a noble goal, but it’s not one these classes can necessarily be trusted to deliver on. The fact is, Massachusetts has not formally evaluated parent-education courses since it began requiring them a quarter-century ago, and nearly all of the studies examining their efficacy from other parts of the country have profoundly flawed methodologies. According to Jeong-Kyun Choi, a professor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, there are only two studies with sound, experimental designs in the academic literature, even though countless parents have been ordered to take the classes since 1970.

Even Chief Justice of Probate and Family Court John Casey admits that evidence about the value of these courses is scant, telling me via email that he believes they should be studied and evaluated comprehensively. Still, he defends their existence. “Although I do not have statistics to prove that parent education ‘works,’” he wrote, “I do have the firsthand experience of parents telling me at hearings that the parent education classes helped them think about their children’s perspective and guided some of the choices that they made.” I appreciated his answer, though it’s hard to believe that a judge with the fate of someone’s parental rights in his or her hands will get an honest appraisal of the class. That said, Josh Hoch, the director of mediation services at MWI, the provider of the course I took, told me that while most parents don’t want to be there, the majority leave reviews indicating they enjoyed the session and learned something.

What they learn, however, might not always be what the course leaders intended.

Halfway through the first day of my course, we were shown what was supposed to be an educational video but seemed a lot more like a work of anti-divorce agitprop. With maudlin music playing in the background, and in achingly long black-and-white takes, children held up poster-board signs with messages they wanted their parents to hear. “I still think it is my fault,” read one. “I just want you to think about me,” said another. “I feel sad,” read the next.

Dana, who asked that I only use her first name to protect her privacy, took the same course I did, but in person, before the pandemic. When she saw this video, she got up from her chair, went to the bathroom, and wept. “It was like one of those Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercials of sad, broken animals,” she told me. “When I saw that video, I felt such shame. It solidified every fear I had.” Dana, who had been married to an alcoholic, says her decision to divorce was less a choice than a means of self-preservation.

I had a visceral reaction to the video myself. But the other thing I noticed—and brought up during the breakout group afterward—was that practically every one of those signs could have been held up by kids going through a number of other difficult childhood transitions. Research shows that family-income loss, moving, and switching schools all take an emotional toll on children. Yet even in cases in which parents make major life changes freely—such as a move for a better, higher-paying job—we don’t assume they were selfish for doing something that could be tough on their children, nor do we send them to parenting classes. That’s because unlike these parents, people who make the still-controversial decision to divorce are somehow considered “morally blameworthy,” writes Schaefer, and in need of instruction.

On the second day of the course, we were treated to another video of very cute and very sad kids talking about divorce, interspersed with animations made from children’s artwork. Laurie from the South Shore, who asked only to be identified by her first name, took a different course than I did but saw the same video. Right before it was screened, her course leader warned the group that it was going to be a tearjerker. (You have to ask why, in a course that is supposed to teach people how to parent better, they are subjected to a video known to make them cry.) Laurie did cry and felt pretty awful. “I felt like it was set up to make people reconsider divorce,” she says. “It was stigmatizing.” This, despite the fact that Laurie says she, her children, and their father agree that they are all much better off since the separation.

In my breakout group after that very same video, I finally spoke up. I told the course leader that the choice of videos seemed to indicate that whoever designed the class is under the impression that parents make the decision to divorce cavalierly, without thinking about, much less agonizing over, how it might affect their kids. My course leader nodded empathetically. Later Hoch told me that he does not intend to upset people, only to help them, and I believe him.

The reality, of course, is that we are all bathed in the divorce-damages-kids narrative from the time we are born in this country, and every parent I know who has ever divorced—or wanted to but didn’t—has struggled mightily over the decision precisely because we are so hyper-aware of the very message displayed in these videos. In my mind, for many years, divorce was something other people did, and they did it to their children. The stigma of it weighed on me like a steel blanket, night after night, year after year, as I lay in bed sleepless and doing subtraction—18 minus 7; 18 minus 8; 18 minus 9. How many more years did I have to stay in this marriage until my youngest went to college and I could safely divorce? Surely, I could white-knuckle my way through it till then, couldn’t I?

In the end, I couldn’t. But because of the weight of this narrative, I stayed in my marriage far too long and, in doing so, did my daughters a grave disservice. I modeled terrible behavior to two young girls, telling them with my actions—and, more specifically, my inaction—that if you are in a toxic relationship, you should stay and suck it up even if you feel like your life is being sucked out of you.

Like the women I talked to, watching these videos brought up my most primal fear. “The courses tap into divorcing couples’ insecurity and paranoia that they are putting their child at risk,” says Charania, adding that divorce need not be framed solely as risky for children. “Divorce most obviously is about change, and it could be framed as bringing new possibilities. But it isn’t. Instead, divorce becomes an opportunity for the state to capitalize on reforming men and women into re-marriageable, heteronormatively appropriate citizens.”

If you think Charania is going a bit too far, you might reconsider. The grand finale of my course was a third video. This one was about divorced parents who each remarry someone wonderful. All of the exes get along swimmingly and the new spouses love their stepchildren wholeheartedly. The parting message seemed to be: You can fix this mess—just find yourself another spouse.

Like me, many of the course participants I spoke with found the class insulting in its insinuations that we didn’t know what was good for our kids. They found that it not only trafficked in shame and guilt, but also retraumatized them long after they had come to their hard-won, thoroughly thought-out decisions to divorce. And, to add injury to insult, they actually had to pay for it.

At the end of the first day, when Dana heard her homework assignment—make sure to practice some self-care—she was livid. “I just spent $80 on this course, took a day off work. Self-care? I just spent the money I could have used to pay for a yoga class, or therapy for myself or my daughter, or even gotten my nails painted instead,” she said, adding, “If there was any usable content, that would have been different, of course.”

In fact, the thing that struck me most as I sat for five hours with strangers was how much of a demand there actually is for usable content—not about parenting but about how to divorce. So much of the class was consumed with questions from participants about how to file papers, how to divorce a spouse when you’ve taken out a restraining order, and how to get a divorce when the father hasn’t been seen in years. While the course leaders provided some links and resources, this wasn’t the purpose of the session, and many participants needed so much more.

They can get it, of course—for a price. Many course providers offer other divorce-related services such as mediation and counseling, which made me wonder if the classes aren’t just the top of the funnel for them—a state-mandated way to get advertising leads that they not only don’t have to pay for, but get paid for. When I asked MWI’s Hoch about this, he said he may get one or two people as clients after a course, though he adds, “I certainly thought we would get a lot more.”

As it turns out, even some of our legislators aren’t privy to the required courses going on right under their noses. When I reached out to state Representative Kay Khan, who cochairs the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, to talk to her about the mandate for these classes, she told me she was unaware that they even existed. “I’m sure,” she said, “that some parents find it beneficial, as the transition to single parenting can be very challenging, while others feel shamed and demeaned during an already challenging time in their lives.”

The reality is, while it takes only a hot five minutes to get married in this country, getting a divorce is so confusing and time-consuming that people are forced to shell out thousands of dollars for lawyers to make sense of it. The process seems designed to be almost impossible for individuals to do on their own. This only heaps more stress on parents at an already difficult time, which can also affect their children. The irony is that it is the courts themselves that have created this situation.

What would it look like if the legislature abolished these unproven and outdated courses and instead supported parents more during the divorce process itself? (If they are really serious about children’s well-being, how about supporting parents better during marriage, too?) Khan believes the state can do better. “After nearly three decades,” she told me, “it might be time to reexamine the efficacy of this requirement, and consider other modern, evidenced-based approaches to promoting healthy post-divorce parenting in the commonwealth.”

Meanwhile, Chief Justice Casey wrote to me, “There is no doubt that families have evolved since parent education was first introduced by the legislature in 1993.” I’d argue that families haven’t evolved so much as our perception of what constitutes a good one. Making divorcing parents feel stigmatized, guilty, and in need of court intervention isn’t in anyone’s best interest—especially our children’s.