A front-page headline in USA Today in April was a cry of alarm: “Puberty Too Soon; Girls Are Maturing Faster Than Ever, and Doctors Are Not Sure Why.” What followed was an investigative report indicating that in 21st-century America, “girls are maturing faster than ever and … hitting puberty younger than any generation in history.” This trend deeply troubles public health officials – and should disturb all Americans – because of the studies finding that that “early puberty increases girls’ odds of depression, drinking, drug use, eating disorders, behavioral problems and attempted suicide.”
But what has caused this epidemic of early puberty, with all its attendant problems? USA Todayreporter Liz Szabo suggests that the problem might be “environmental chemicals”: The chemicals “found in everything from pesticides to flame retardants and perfume … can interfere with the hormones.” But this explanation is apparently not conclusive, since Szabo also proffers a second explanation: Obesity – which is on the rise among American children – is triggering early puberty. But wait! Readers learn of yet another theory – namely, that young girls are entering puberty early because of too much time “watching sexy TV images” – even though Szabo admits that here is “no evidence” to support this theory.
At the end of a long article, when readers’ attention span is undoubtedly beginning to wane, theUSA Today reporter mentions, just in passing, “preliminary research [that] suggests that girls may be more likely to develop early if they experience more family stress, or if they don’t live with their biological fathers.”
In fact, the research linking early puberty among young girls to family disintegration is actually far from “preliminary” and is absolutely essential to any solid understanding of what is happening to this generation of young women. But as Winston Churchill once remarked, when “most people . . . stumble across truth,” they manage to “jump up, brush themselves off, and hurry on about their business as if nothing had happened.” So it is that USA Today manages to quickly brush off the brief and glancing reference to family dissolution as a cause of the serious public-health problem being reported, concluding its article with an editorializing moral from a credentialed expert at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.: “Supporting girls as they go through puberty can help them weather the stress, at any age.” 1
After reading this rather typical news article, readers will understand the disturbing reality of a widespread and growing problem. Unfortunately, few will recognize just how much this problem derives from adverse trends in family life. In studies conducted in industrialized nations around the world, researchers have repeatedly shown that girls growing up in intact married-parent homes are much less likely to experience early puberty than are peers growing up in single-parent or step-parent homes. Researchers examining data from New Zealand recently calculated that “girls without fathers in the home are 2.62 times more likely to have menarche before the age of 12 years” than are peers living with their fathers. 2
Recent studies in Canada, France and the United States have reached similar conclusions. 3What is more, researchers not only have limned a statistical correlation between family disintegration and early puberty among girls, but they have also uncovered a likely biochemical explanation of this linkage: In a world where young girls increasingly live with either a stepfather or a mother’s live-in lover, “the presence of alternative father figure causes earlier pubertal timing ” in a way that is entirely “consistent with research on a variety of other mammalian species documenting that pheromones produced by unrelated adult male conspecifics accelerate female pubertal maturation.” 4
But readers of USA Today will simply not understand the strong and well-established chain of causality tying early puberty to family disintegration. Still, it would hardly be fair to single out USA Today for keeping this chain hidden. In 21st-century America, even in 21st-century Utah, public commentators have established a predictable and rhetorically useful formula for dealing with social problems affecting children and adolescents: first, lament the problem; second, throw around a few random theories that will make the problem seem insoluble; finally, turn to some government official (preferably in Washington, D.C.) to tell us how to cope with the effects of the problem. USA Today simply followed the standard formula.
What Utahns need to understand is that this formula hides as much as it reveals. For this is a formula that forbids anything more than an oblique and fleeting reference to changes in family life as a cause of the problems in view. The preferred solution to the problems among children and teens is usually official expertise, often ensconced in some government agency. The idea that Americans might dramatically alleviate young people’s problems by reinforcing marriage and family life is strictly verboten.
Let the problem be what it may – child poverty, child abuse, child and adolescent mental illness, child obesity – the public laments will be loud, but the mentions of family breakup as a cause will be very subdued, if voiced at all. So a steady bombardment of media and official government commentaries make Americans ever more painfully aware of problems afflicting our young people, but only dimly cognizant of how fractured family life could be causing these problems. So Americans desperately hope that government officials will help these suffering young people, never realizing that what these young people most need is the protection of an intact parental marriage. Because they rarely enter into public commentaries on these problems, studies showing the linkage between young people’s problems and family disintegration do not often impinge on average Americans’ consciousness.
So even as generally attentive citizens worry about child poverty, they fail to connect poverty rates to family structure, a connection that is so ubiquitous and persistent that researchers have suggested that the best solution to the problem of child poverty “might be to find a way to reduce the incidence of single-parent families in the first place.” 5 Americans grieve over the problem of child abuse, never knowing that children in single-parent families are “more than twice as likely to experience physical abuse (odds ratio of 2.26) than peers in two-parent homes” 6 and that in the case of sexual abuse “the presence of a stepfather in the home doubles the risk for girls, not only for being abused by the stepfather but also for being abused by other men prior to the arrival of the stepfather in the home.”7 Americans agonize over the epidemic of psychological illness among young Americans, without recognizing that “children from single-parent households . . . [are] roughly twice as likely to be identified with psychosocial problems” as peers in intact families. 8 And they fret over childhood obesity, unmindful of research showing that “for obesity, the worst outcomes … are associated with growing up with a single parent (whether stable or unstable) or an unstable cohabiting parent.” 9 (In other words, even if obesity is truly a trigger for early puberty among young girls, obesity itself is linked to family breakdown in a way not generally acknowledged.)
Americans who do burrow into the relevant research might begin to suspect that the overwhelmingly liberal media are intent on protecting the sexual and divorce revolutions of the late 20th century from unfavorable scrutiny. They may likewise begin to suspect that many lawyers, therapists and government officials want to safeguard the profits flowing from what clinical psychologist Diane Medved has aptly called “the divorce industry.”10 They may suspect, above all, that media mavens and bureaucrats alike are fearful of what might happen if Americans fully identified family breakdown as the root cause of problems among the nation’s young people. Why, they might just join Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who was so moved by the realization that family failure was “destroying our society” that he publicly confessed, “I made a great big mistake in the late sixties when I supported no-fault divorce.” 11 They might even joinWashington Post columnist William Raspberry, who went even further than just offering his ownmea culpa for his previous support of liberalized divorce laws. “If I could offer a single prescription for the survival of America, and particularly of black America,” Raspberry has written, “it would be: Restore the family.”12
Some progressive commentators will dismiss the family-centered thinking of Senator Grassley and of William Raspberry as simplistic and reactionary. But unless Utahns are content to simply wring their hands as the litany of problems afflicting our young people grows ever longer, perhaps it is time to join Grassley and Raspberry in recognizing family breakdown as the root cause of many such problems.
Co-author William C. Duncan, J.D., is director of the Marriage Law Foundation and is the director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.
Co-author Bryce J. Christensen, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Southern Utah University and adjunct fellow of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He is a contributing editor to The Family in America and author of Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (Transaction, 2005). He has also published articles on family issues inSociety, The Public Interest, Policy Review, Modern Age, and other journals.