Skip to main content

Max Sindell was 14 when he first thought about becoming an expert on divorce.

"I always felt that I had a different perspective on divorce. It was one of the best things that happened to me," he says from his home in Brooklyn.

Now 22 and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University with a degree in creative writing, Mr. Sindell wrote The Bright Side: Surviving Your Parents' Divorce while he was a student. Published last August, it has spawned a website,, and several speaking engagements.

Divorce is a transition parents tend to own as part of their identity. It's a state of being, at least socially.

But the children? It's not often you hear them describe the challenges, difficulties and, yes, merits of their parents' breakup. Their voices are often marginalized, if not silent, overwhelmed by not just parents but also many psychologists who dwell on negative effects of divorce and predict gloomy outcomes for children, whose homes are described, ominously, as broken.

But with children of the boomer divorce trend coming of age, that may be changing.

"Divorce is far more normalized in my generation and in the culture than it was previously," Mr. Sindell explains.

He felt it was time to empower other children of divorce and help them see that it could be a positive experience.

He was 6 when his parents divorced, setting off a series of upheavals. Upon divorcing his mother, his father, who had three children from a first marriage, moved to another state and remarried, only to divorce again. He has since remarried for the fourth time. Mr. Sindell's mother remarried 12 years ago and moved several times.

For his book, Mr. Sindell devised the Divorced Kids' Bill of Rights, which includes, among other things, an entitlement to awareness, to be heard and to be neutral. "It's about no secrets, no surprises," he says. "If parents are thinking about moving somewhere or having you change schools, or having a new partner move into the house, those are big life-altering decisions that have to be discussed with children."

He has a close relationship with both parents, he says, which he attributes partly to the divorce process. "You start to see your parents as people rather than as top-down authority figures," he says. Even at 6, he could see they were unhappy together. When they announced the split, "my initial reaction was one of relief."

His advice is that children should embrace divorce as the opportunity to mature. "You can prove to your parents that you can have the responsibility, that they can trust you, and that, in turn, gives you more freedom," he says. He volunteered to be an intermediary between his parents when he was 8, not to take one person's side, but to ease their communication.

When he was 11, he asked his parents and step-parents, all of whom were living in the same city at the time, to sit down with him and his school counsellor, who had become a confidant, to work out a better visiting schedule.

But such forced maturity is the very thing that psychologists diagnose as unhealthy. "You don't want to overburden children with making decisions," says Richard Warshak, an expert on children and divorce who has written extensively about the subject. "Age is not a factor," he adds. "Even teenagers need structure."

Mr. Sindell is not out to glorify divorce, however. He understands the difficulties and warns of the pitfalls. He identifies the trauma to children when parents criticize each other. "The worst is when you say to them, 'I don't want to hear that stuff,' and they keep doing it."

Single parents often cross the boundary with their young children, using them as "an emotional reservoir," which can be overwhelming. "If [parents]start stressing about their day at work or their dealings with their ex or how their new boyfriend dumped them and they worry they will never find a new husband, that's totally inappropriate."

Asked how his parents behaved in the aftermath of their separation, he says they were "pretty good but not perfect," adding that they are proud of him for writing the book.

Such upbeat and honest divorce talk from and about children is an anomaly. Elizabeth Marquardt, a 30-something child of divorce, wrote Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce in 2005, based on the first nationally representative U.S. study of grown children of divorce.

An amicable divorce is better than a bitter one, she acknowledges, but there is no such thing as a good divorce. "While some children can certainly rise to the occasion, they lose their childhoods, and I think that's something that we should mourn, not celebrate," she is quoted as saying in a recent interview. The director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values in New York and an outspoken Christian, Ms. Marquardt wants to give parents reasons to stay together.

Which is commendable. If marriages can be saved, they should be. But when psychologists study the effects on grown children of having, say, lost a parent when they were young, I'm sure they find there was some shift in the subjects' inner lives. Traumatic events scar us. I know few adults, from either "broken" or "intact" homes, who don't have one or more episodes from their childhood that didn't profoundly shape them in some way.

The focus on grown children of divorce, and their outcomes, is often a form of social censure, an echo of a fearful society that is ambivalent about the state of modern families.

Pressed for an answer, Dr. Warshak agrees that "the doom and gloom of divorce is oversold." He also concedes that emphasizing the negative "can make children [of divorce]feel like they are damaged goods."

To me, the dire-warning approach is a bit like saying to an amputee that living without his limb will make him miserable.

The title of Mr. Sindell's book is a tacit acknowledgment that a dark side to his Bright Side exists. And, arguably, he wouldn't have felt compelled to write a book about divorce - he wants to do more - if he didn't have some significant processing to do in his own inner life.

"There's no question that having parents fight, split up and moving can be stressful and damaging," he allows. "But if you keep talking about that, it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. I really want to change the narrative. Whether or not you think that divorce is good or bad, people are going to get divorced, and kids are going to be dealing with it. I try to be helpful."