January 21, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Are we now actually going to start listening to children when we decide child custody issues? Oh, I know that most jurisdictions allow children over a certain age (usually around 14), to express a preference for Mom or Dad. But as this article and one at The Federalist report, that’s not the question we should be asking (Deseret News, 10/9/14).
After all, since kids need both parents in their lives and since some form of shared parenting has been shown by social science to be in their best interests (assuming parents are fit), what since does it make to ask them to choose between the two. If the only option is either Dad or Mom, a child’s choice isn’t likely to be any better than a judge’s.
Why not give them ‘Both’ as an option? If we did that, the research reported on by the linked-to article strongly indicates that a large majority of kids would choose exactly that.
The research is by the estimable William Fabricius of Arizona State University. It builds on previous research by him and adds to surveys done in Canada of children’s preferences about child custody when their parents divorce.
"What children want and what children need — what they see as stability — is open access to both parents," wrote Leslie Loftis for the Federalist. She pointed to a report by William V. Fabricius and Jeffrey Hall that looked back on earlier studies and found children want and do best with less regimented visitation schedules and more access to each parent.
"Children repeatedly insisted that being able to see the noncustodial parents whenever they wished and being able to see that parent often made their parents' divorces tolerable for them," the two wrote. It didn't matter which parent was custodial; the children wanted to divide their time between their parents.
"There is increasing consensus that the perspectives of children need to be taken into account in decisions made by divorcing parent and the courts and that young adults who have lived through their parents' divorces can be an important source about children's perspectives," the duo wrote in the introduction to their research, which asked 820 college students who had grown up with divorced parents about their living arrangements at the time and what they would have changed.
Importantly, Fabricius and Hall weren’t asking children. They were asking young adults of college age who’d experienced their parents’ divorces. And what they want is time – and lots of it - with each parent. State legislatures should take note; so should family law judges, custody evaluators, social workers, psychologists, mediators, lawyers, guardians ad litem, etc.
All those people cry to the heavens that they do what’s in the “best interests of children.” But they don’t. What they do is separate children from parents who love them and whom they very much need. Yes, some parents aren’t fit to care for their kids. And yes there are situations – one parent lives far away - that make meaningful time with a parent difficult or impossible. But those are the relatively rare exceptions that can easily dealt with by judges in individual cases.
In state after state, country after country, what we see is pro-mother/anti-father bias on the part of laws, judges and mental health professionals. That they attempt to paper over that bias with the words “the best interests of the child,” doesn’t mean that their decisions actually benefit kids. The simple fact is that, in terms of children’s interests, one weekend per month plus one overnight per week amount to too little time to maintain a real parent/child relationship. By “real” I mean one that’s sufficient for the child to derive the many benefits of shared parenting. Given such limited time, non-custodial parents tend to read the writing on the wall, “You’re not really a parent,” and become what sociologist Susan Stewart has called “Disneyland” parents.
Unsurprisingly, kids get the same message. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who the real parent is when they see one every day and the other rarely, when one is empowered to make all the decisions and the other can’t even receive school reports or medical information. Is it a surprise that a whopping one-third of American children see their fathers rarely if at all?
Not only does social science demonstrate the value of keeping both parents in children’s lives post-divorce, but the kids themselves strongly agree. Is anyone with the ability to remake policy listening? Anyone?
If so, they’ve likely heard and believe that what children really need when their parents divorce is stability. By that they mean routines that vary little from one day, one week, one month to the other. So, if Mom was the primary caregiver to the child during the marriage, she should be the primary caregiver afterward.
That of course ignores the fact that children bond with both parents and don’t much care which one did most of the feeding, diapering, etc. The only ones who think hands-on parenting time during marriage should govern parenting time after separation are judges and the anti-dad crowd. If we care about what’s best for kids, we’ll ignore that, because it turns out kids have their own definition of ‘stability.”
Parents who prioritize routine after divorce to afford their children stability may not be giving them what they really need. Research says children have a very different take on what it takes to thrive post-divorce.
As the article says, kids’ definition of the word is ‘ready access to both parents.’ In other words, they feel best and do best when they don’t lose a parent to some judge’s 19th century concept of a father’s proper place.
To its credit, the article outlines just how out-of-touch with the social science those attitudes are.
Mom is as important as dad to a child's well-being and development, but the push to get fathers more involved post-divorce reflects the fact that custody arrangements have long favored moms. According to U.S. Census figures, as many as one-third of children live in biological father-absent households.
Experts agree that issues like domestic violence, child abuse and addictions can provide sound reason to favor one parent over the other for custody. But it is increasingly agreed that absent such an issue, children should have access to both parents…
The living arrangement itself did not have as much impact as whether or not children are able to spend time with both parents, according to that study, conducted by psychologist Robert Bauserman of AIDS Administration/Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore.
He did a meta-review of 33 studies that included 1,846 sole-custody and 814 joint-custody children, looking at how well the children adjusted in their different situations, whether joint physical or legal custody, sole-custody or intact families.
According to research, moms and dads bring different and important things to the parent-child relationship. A story co-published by the Deseret News and the The Atlantic said that dads, for instance, help with impulse control and memory, and situational flexibility. It cited research showing that children who are close to their fathers do better academically and are more likely to graduate compared to those with absent fathers. A father's role in a child's life also impacts whether or not a child uses drugs.
Kids benefit from the financial and emotional support of both parents. “There is a great deal of evidence that children from single-parent homes have worse outcomes on both academic and economic measures than children from two-parent families,” scholar Elaine C. Kamarck and Third Way president Jonathan Cowan wrote in the introduction to Wayward Sons, a report for Washington think tank Third Way. “There is a vast inequality of both financial resources and parental time and attention between one- and two-parent families.”
The more we see of family law, family courts and child custody cases, the harder it is to avoid concluding that the only people ignorant of what needs to be done are those with the ability to do it. When shared parenting legislation comes before state lawmakers, they routinely evidence all but complete ignorance of what actually serves children’s interests. The same holds for judges in custody cases.
It’s time they got the message.
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Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.
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