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February 23, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

In my last piece I said that Dr. Richard Warshak was talking about Australian researcher Jennifer McIntosh when he excoriated scientists who play the role of advocate, setting aside data that disagree with their preferred conclusions and emphasizing results that do the opposite. He and the 110 social scientists that signed on to his conclusions are explicit about that. They’ve produced a document that summarizes the science on the parenting of very young children when the parents are separated. They’ve reached consensus on their analysis of the literature at least in part to set the record straight that McIntosh and others have skewed.

Richard A. Warshak prepared the draft of this consensus document. The endorsers reviewed the draft and offered suggestions that were incorporated into the final manuscript. It is important to acknowledge that every endorser may not agree with every detail of the literature review. The endorsers are an international group of highly accomplished researchers and practitioners. This interdisciplinary group includes prominent representatives from the fields of early child development, clinical and forensic psychology, psychiatry, sociology, social work, and counseling. Many head their university departments, edit professional journals, and have served in leadership positions in professional associations.

Certain events raised awareness of the need for this consensus statement on parenting plans for young children. Advocates are promoting a report issued by an Australian government agency (McIntosh, Smyth, & Kelaher, 2010) as a basis for decisions regarding parenting plans for children of preschool age and younger. Accounts of the report appearing in the media, in professional seminars, in legislative briefs, and in court directly contradict the actual data, overlook results that support opposite conclusions, and mislead their audience…

Advocates’ efforts against overnight parenting time for preschool children have generated confusion and uncertainty about where the scientific community stands on these issues. This document, begun in January 2012, is an attempt to stem the tide of this misinformation before this advocacy becomes enshrined in professional practice and family law.

Remember, these are highly respected academicians writing. When that type of person uses the language quoted about other academicians, you know there’s trouble. Briefly, those who understand the value to children of having two parents in their lives are sick of the false claims of the anti-dad crowd that engages in a level of intellectual dishonesty that would be laughable were it not so serious. Warshak, et al have gone to the trouble of creating a review of the literature and getting 110 eminent social scientists to endorse it. It can therefore serve as the gold standard for anyone who’s serious about understanding what parenting structure best serves children, and the bias of those opposed to fathers having contact with their children can forever be set aside.

Discussions of parenting plans for young children in normal situations concern three main issues. First, should young children’s time be concentrated predominantly under the care and supervision of one parent, or should their time be more evenly divided between parents? The professional literature and the law variously label as shared or joint, physical or residential custody, (as distinguished from sole physical custody) divisions of a child’s time between homes that have no greater disparity than 65%–35%. Second, should young children spend nights in each parent’s home, or should they sleep in the same home every night? Nearly all shared physical custody schedules include overnights, but not all children who spend overnights in both homes spend at least 35% time in each home. Third, if a parent is designated with the status of a young child’s primary parent, are the benefits to the child of involvement with the other parent diminished or erased if the parents disagree about the parenting plan, or if one or both parents feel great discomfort or hostility toward the other?

Warshak then provides a bit of the history of social science’s effort to establish Mom as the primary and only necessary adult in a child’s life. The notion of monotropy was put forward in the late 1960s and authoritatively disproven within a decade. The researcher who originally put the idea forward eventually abandoned it.

In sum, based on child development research, policymakers and decision-makers cannot support a priori assumptions that parents of infants and toddlers can be rank ordered as primary or secondary in their importance to the children, and that mothers are more likely to be the “psychologically primary” parents. Further, the research indicates that because infants develop attachment relationships with both of their parents, there is a danger of disturbing one of those relationships by designating one parent as primary and limiting the infant’s time with the other parent. Policies and parenting plans should encourage and maximize the chances that infants will be raised by two adequate and involved parents.

To the credit of Warshak and his colleagues, this review is both a matter of science and public policy. They direct their message first and foremost to those in a position to do something about existing flawed policies. These social scientists are demanding that those who make laws and who carry them out in family courts pay attention to what we know about the well-being of children as it relates to their relationships with their parents. At long last, Warshak, et al are saying that lawmakers and judges who supposedly act “in the best interests of children” must be required to know what promotes that and what obstructs it. Put simply, current practice in family courts is directly contradicted by the science on child well-being. That must stop.

Warshak goes on to note that, according to the American Time Use Survey compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both mothers and fathers in intact families spend plenty of time directly caring for their children to establish the type of bonding necessary for children’s attachment to their parents. And the time spent with one parent doesn’t detract from the child’s attachment to the other parent. So attachment to Dad doesn’t preclude attachment to Mom and vice versa.

Given the findings that infants and toddlers who spent considerable amounts of time away from their mothers and in the care of fathers and grandparents showed no negative effects in development, including in their relationship with their mothers, this early child care research provides no support for denying young children whose parents live apart from each other extensive time with their fathers (Bernet & Ash, 2007).

Warshak concludes the introductory part of the review with the following conclusions:

  • Parents’ consistent, predictable, frequent, affectionate, and sensitive behavior toward their infants is key to forming meaningful, secure, and healthy parent–child relationships.
  • Having a secure attachment with at least one parent provides children with enduring benefits and protections that offset mental health risks of stress and adversity.
  • Having a relationship with two parents increases children’s odds of developing at least one secure attachment.
  • The deterioration of father–child relationships after divorce is a pressing concern (Zill,Morrison,&Coiro,1993).
  • The majority of children from preschool through college are
  • Dissatisfied ,some even distressed, with the amount of contact they have with their fathers after divorce and with the intervals between contacts(Kelly,2012; Hetherington&Kelly,2002; Warshak& Santrock, 1983).
  • Policies and parenting plans should encourage and maximize the chances that children will enjoy the benefits of being raised by two adequate and involved parents.
  • We have no basis for rank ordering parents as primary or secondary in their importance to child development.
  • Normal parent–child relationships emerge from less than fulltime care and les than round-the-clock presenc of parents.
  • Full-time maternal care is not necessary for children to develop normally. Children’s healthy development can and usually does sustain many hours of separation between mother and child. This is especially true when fathers or grandparents care for children in place of their mothers.
  • These findings support the desirability of parenting plans that are most likely to result in both parents developing and maintaining the motivation and commitment to remain involved with their children, and that give young children more time with their fathers than traditional schedules allow (generally day time visits every other weekend with perhaps one brief midweek contact).

These findings do not necessarily translate into a preference for parenting plans that divide young children’s time exactly evenly between homes.

Notice that all of this assumes that Dad has had an opportunity to care for his child and therefore that the child has had the opportunity to form attachments to him. That strongly militates against mothers who refuse to tell a father about his child or actively intervene to prevent his involvement as a parent. That type of maternal gatekeeping is clearly detrimental to both the child and its father and should not be permitted. States should pass laws requiring mothers to give fathers the opportunity to be with and care for their children from before birth onward.

I’ll continue with Warshak’s findings and recommendations in my next post.

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