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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

April 29, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

This Time Magazine article is quite good, and not just because our own Ned Holstein is quoted so favorably (Time, 4/27/15). As the momentum toward shared parenting continues to grow, articles in widely-read news sources like Time both chart that growth and promote it. Here’s how Holstein is quoted in the article.

Shared parenting is less common in the U.S. [than in Sweden], says Ned Holstein, MD, founder and acting executive director of the National Parents Organization, and he estimates the rate is less than 20%. Still, he says that the research in favor of shared parenting for kids is overwhelming. “You’ll hear opponents say, ‘You’ll turn them into suitcase kids; they don’t want to be dragged back and forth,'” Holstein says. “Clearly, taking the suitcase back and forth once or twice a week so that you spend a lot of time with both parents is way better for the kids than the alternative of basically losing an intimate and closely loving relationship with one parent.”

That’s in answer to one of the dwindling number of bullet points routinely repeated by those who oppose children having access to one of their parents (usually their father) post-divorce. The argument claims that shared parenting means the kids’ continually trekking back and forth between parents. That, so the argument goes, results in stress for the children, that they wouldn’t experience if they only lived with one parent.

Of course there’s essentially no evidence to back up the claim and much that rebuts it. Professor Edward Kruk summarized that evidence in his recent book, The Equal Parent Presumption. He concluded that “None of these studies have found that children in sole custody fare batter in their psychological and social adjustment than children in joint custody families; indeed, children in sole custody arrangements run a greater risk of academic problems, alcohol and drug use, poor social skills, depression and suicide, delinquency and incarceration, and poor physical health and early mortality.”

So, if the one-week-with-Mom-one-week-with-Dad arrangement necessitated by shared parenting were deleterious for kids, you’d think someone somewhere sometime would have discovered it. But they haven’t, which doesn’t keep the anti-dad crowd from repeating their mantra.

Kruk’s book was published in 2013 so it doesn’t report on the new study out of Sweden that the Time article devotes most of its space to. It’s an analysis of a massive set of data collected over a long period of time. Predictably, it finds that Swedish children in shared parenting arrangements do better on a range of physical and emotional criteria than do children in the sole or primary care of one parent.

[A] new study, published Monday in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, suggests that children fare better when they spend time living with both of their parents.

That goes against some current thinking that kids in shared-custody situations are exposed to more stress due to constantly moving around and the social upheaval that can come along with that. “Child experts and people in general assumed that these children should be more stressed,” says study author Malin Bergström, PhD, researcher at the Centre for Health Equity Studies in Stockholm, Sweden. “But this study opposes a major concern that this should not be good for children.”

The researchers wanted to see if kids who lived part time with both parents were more stressed than those who lived with just one parent. They looked at national data from almost 150,000 12- and 15-year-old students—each in either 6th grade or 9th grade—and studied their psychosomatic health problems, including sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, headaches, stomachaches and feeling tense, sad or dizzy. They found that 69% of them lived in nuclear families, while 19% spent time living with both parents and about 13% lived with only one parent.

Kids in nuclear families reported the fewest psychosomatic problems, but the more interesting finding was that students who lived with both of their separated parents reported significantly fewer problems than kids who lived with only one parent.

“We think that having everyday contact with both parents seems to be more important, in terms of stress, than living in two different homes,” says Bergström...

Girls reported more psychosomatic problems than boys did, and the most frequent problem for girls was sadness. Sleep problems were the most common in kids overall.

Although it doesn’t report much that’s new on the benefits of shared parenting or the detriments of sole care, the study is important because of the huge mass of children studied. Bergström’s is by far the largest study of its kind ever conducted. There’s a simple truth behind the scientific/academic rhetoric; no science supports sole or primary custody generally and much science supports shared parenting. Anti-shared parenting claims invariably turn out to be excuses, not reasons.

Bergström makes another sound point about just why shared parenting is best for kids.

Having two parents also tends to double the number of resources a kid is exposed to, including social circles, family and material goods like money. “Only having access to half of that may make children more vulnerable or stressed than having it from both parents, even though they don’t live together,” she says.

That’s the point Sarah McLanahan and Gary Sandefur devoted a whole book — Growing Up with a Single Parent — to. Sole custody shortchanges children of what they call “social capital,” i.e. all those resources — human and otherwise — that each parent and their extended families and business, educational, social, spiritual, etc. contacts provide to children. As Bergström makes clear, sole or primary custody effectively removes half of that social capital from children’s lives, rendering them less protected, less connected and understandably more stressed.

The Swedes are far ahead of us and the rest of the world when it comes to understanding the benefits of shared parenting and forming public policy to fit the science.

In Sweden, joint-custody parenting has risen dramatically in the past few decades; in the 1980s, only 1% of kids of divorced parents lived in joint-custody arrangements, but that number jumped to 40% in 2010.

It’s long been one of the most astonishing feature of American jurisprudence regarding child custody that literally every decision by family courts is supposedly made “in the best interests of the child,” but judges aren’t trained in the science that demonstrates that children’s interests are best served by shared custody. Essentially, judges rely on their instincts (another word for biases) to decide custody rather than the wealth of knowledge we have about what benefits kids. The science is readily available, but the very people charged with acting in the best interests of children, don’t know what provides it. Sweden, to its credit, seems to be different.

Now, the Time article is mostly quite good, as I mentioned. But it does rely on a couple of iterations that are somewhat misleading.

Regarding the wellbeing of kids with divorced parents, the debate over what kind of custody arrangement is best rages on…

[Bergström’s study] goes against some current thinking that kids in shared-custody situations are exposed to more stress due to constantly moving around and the social upheaval that can come along with that.

Those two sentences suggest a level of equivalence between pro- and anti-shared parenting science that simply doesn’t exist, as Professor Kruk makes clear. The only debate that’s raging is between pro-shared parenting advocates backed by a mountain of scrupulous social science and anti-shared parenting advocates with little but bias and empty claims about abusive fathers. The “current thinking” referred to in the second sentence is more like wishful thinking on the part of anti-dad advocates hoping to find something with which to justify a stance that’s long been known to be harmful to children and adults alike.

Still, the Time article is a step toward educating the public about what may be the most important single issue of our time — the government-sponsored breakdown of the family.

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National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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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