The excellent Dr. Linda Nielsen has an article in the most recent edition of The Nebraska Lawyer, the house organ for that state’s Bar Association (The Nebraska Lawyer, January/February, 2013). Put simply, Nielsen’s article should be read by every family law judge and every state legislator in the nation. It addresses and lays to rest the most common claims made by those who seek to eliminate or marginalize fathers in the lives of their children post-divorce.
Entitled “Parenting Time and Shared Residential Custody: Ten Common Myths,” Nielsen’s article essentially says that the state of authoritative social science demands shared parenting. In addition to destroying the various myths, Nielsen cites readers to some of the social science supporting children’s need for shared parenting.
So, Myth One is the notion that parents should receive an amount of parenting time post-divorce that’s approximately equal to the amount of time they spent with the child pre-divorce. Nielsen says simply that such a claim “is not based on empirical research.” In the first place, the amount of parenting time typically awarded in divorce cases bears more relation to myths about parenting time than the amount of parenting time actually expended by parents. Nielsen cites two national surveys that show that fathers spend about 33 hours a week in parenting activities while mothers spend about 50. That’s right at a 60/40 split, something that standard custody and visitation orders rarely even approximate. And besides regardless of the exact figures on parenting time, children need both parents.
Myth Two also contradicts social science. Myth Two has it that newborns and infants form attachments to one parent and that parent therefore must remain the major (or only) parent in the child’s life if the parents split up. Nonsense. The state of the art is that children bond early on with both parents and can, within the earliest days of their lives, identify both Mom and Dad. That of course means that children suffer terribly when family judges act to marginalize one of the parents in their lives.
Myth Three is that infants and toddlers become irritable and unable to focus if they spend overnight visits with their fathers. Again, Nielsen summarizes the relevant research and finds this not to be an apt conclusion. Indeed, the only study to find anything of the sort was conducted in Australia by Jennifer McIntosh who has long been known to be an anti-father advocate. Worse, her research was never peer-reviewed and has subsequently been destroyed by Patrick Parkinson and others. What Nielsen calls the “most methodologically sound” research showed that “Overnights [with fathers] did not benefit or cause distress to the toddlers and benefited the 4 to 6 year olds.”
Myth Four would have us believe that children themselves prefer to live with one parent because it’s just too much of a hassle to shuttle back and forth between households. That’s not even close to true as several surveys show. The “vast majority” of children who lived with their mothers said they disliked having so little time with their fathers. And the “vast majority” of children in shared arrangements said having a continuing relationship with both parents more than made up for the logistical difficulties of living in two places. Studies done by Fabricius show that some 70% of children of divorce say they’d prefer not just shared parenting but a 50/50 split to any other parenting arrangement.
Myth Five claims that shared parenting exacerbates conflict between parents and is therefore bad for the kids of divorce. Wrong again. Except when there’s a proven history of ongoing physical violence, the science fails to support the myth. First, sole parenting tends to promote parental conflict more than does shared parenting. That should be obvious. After all, when one parent gets sole custody, that sows resentment in the other parent who then angles to change things by smearing the custodial parent in court. The custodial parent has a position to defend and does so with all her might, often smearing the non-custodial parent in return. And, even if there is ongoing conflict between the parents, the benefits of not losing one of their parents ameliorates the conflict for kids in shared arrangements, so their outcomes tend to be better than for kids in sole custody situations.
Then there’s the idea that the amount of conflict between the parents should be a major factor in deciding custody. That’s true if there’s physical violence that’s ongoing, but not if the conflict is mostly verbal. Nielsen correctly points out that most of that can be taken care of in counseling sessions, and, in any event, “the conflict usually declines by the end of the first year or so after separation.” And again, the benefits of not losing a parent outweigh the detriments of the parent’s verbal jousting.
And where would we be without the myth that shared parenting can’t work if it’s ordered by a court or mediator, i.e. if the parents don’t agree to it between themselves, shared parenting is a dead end? But in fact, studies that examined how parents came to their shared parenting agreement have found that “from 20 – 85% of parents had not initially wanted to share.” Successful shared parenting arrangements often came about due to mediation, litigation or the efforts of attorneys at compromise.
This is a myth I hadn’t heard before. It holds that, however shared parenting comes about, those arrangements tend to fail and the children end up with one or the other parent. But it turns out that some 65 – 90% of shared parenting arrangements were intact up to four years after they were established.
Finally, there’s the bizarre notion that the amount of time kids spend with their fathers is in some way unrelated to the quality of their relationships with their dads. I don’t know who dreamed that one up, but it’s intuitively wrong. And of course, it’s scientifically wrong too.
“Fathering time, especially time that is not limited mainly to weekends, or to other small parcels of time, is closely associated with the quality and the endurance of the father-children relationship. This kind of fathering time is highly correlated with positive outcomes for children of divorce.”That’s what sociologist Susan Stewart essentially revealed in her work that shows non-custodial fathers becoming “Disneyland Dads,” i.e. mere entertainers of their children. Stewart found that to come about in the standard four-days-per-month visitation schedule. What we know is that that standard parenting schedule is insufficient to produce the quality and length of time required for fathers to provide the enormous benefits to children they’re capable of.
The trend toward shared parenting is growing and expanding. The value of both parents to children is undeniable. So far, the only people to not get the message are state legislators, family judges and a large number of anti-father zealots who sell their services to family courts and family lawyers. All of them need to read Dr. Nielsen’s fine work and act accordingly.