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January 29, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The Guardian reported on the same study I did yesterday (Guardian, 1/24/16). It’s another one out of Sweden on which Malin Bergstrom worked. Five researchers analyzed data from about 5,000 children, some of whom lived with their two biological parents, some of whom lived with only one and some of whom lived equally with both parents post-divorce or separation.

The researchers looked at data on children’s psychological problems and found that those living in nuclear families and those in shared custody arrangements fared about the same. By contrast, kids living in sole custody arrangements had markedly more complaints and emotional upsets.

So the researchers wondered if those findings were actually measuring parenting arrangements or something else, like income or other socioeconomic variables, or the psychological problems of the parents themselves being reflected in the kids. But those other factors did not explain the remarkable difference between children in sole custody and those in joint custody or in nuclear families.

According to the study, kids do better with joint custody because they’re in joint custody and not some other reason.

For many, that finding (a) corroborates decades of research indicating the benefits of shared custody and (b) is cause for rejoicing. After all, what’s not to like? The more research is done, the more we learn about the benefits of shared parenting that, essentially invariably, outstrip all other types of post-divorce living arrangements. The better that’s established, the more likely it is that state legislatures and judges will begin to adopt shared parenting as state policy.

Alas, The Guardian wasn’t pleased. I suppose its editors felt required to report on the study, but the reporter doing so, Luisa Dillner, did the job grudgingly. What so many others find uplifting, afflicts Dillner with a case of ennui.

Why don’t children bounce back from divorce? They’re resilient little things, yet the research shows a relentless association between parental break-ups and poor academic achievement, stress, ill health and depression in children.

That’s one way of putting it. Another is that kids handle divorce much better when they don’t lose one parent in the process. It’s not divorce that’s so damaging it’s the fact that laws and courts tend to treat fathers like dirt or, more accurately, pay dirt. The same man who was so important a part of his children’s lives before divorce becomes, by the weird alchemy of the process, a pariah. He’s relegated to occasional visitor, if Mom allows it. If she doesn’t, he has little chance of being a regular presence in his children’s lives. Courts won’t enforce his visitation “rights,” but woe betide the dad who’s late on his support payments.

Does she take out her anger at him by alienating the children? That too is largely overlooked by the courts, although changes in the way courts recognize and deal with parental alienation may be in the wind. Move-aways and international kidnapping are alternately agreed to by courts and not dealt with effectively.

In the U.K. and the U.S. about 33% of kids have little or no contact with their fathers, and courts bear considerable responsibility for that outrageous fact.

So the truth is that it’s not just divorce that’s the problem for kids, but the loss of a parent – usually their father - in the process.

Dillner’s is a curious way to begin an article about a study that clearly demonstrates the point I’m making. Divorce without a parent – bad; divorce with both parents – as good as no divorce at all. You’d think Dillner might see that, but apparently not.

Intuitively, [shared parenting] seems like a terrible idea. How can parents who are splitting up share their children’s everyday lives? Isn’t it confusing for children to repeatedly move between houses? Won’t they be exposed to constant rows?

I guess what “seems intuitively like a terrible idea” depends on who’s doing the intuiting. If it seems like a terrible idea, then I suppose depriving a child of one parent must intuitively seem like a good one. After all, that’s what happens in divorce court.

But to those who pay attention to the issue, what intuitively seems right for parents and beneficial to kids is shared parenting. One week with Dad, one week with Mom is neither complicated nor confusing nor difficult. In fact, it’s easier than most standard parenting orders now. And given the fact that another Swedish study in 2014 found that kids don’t suffer from shuttling between parental abodes in a shared parenting arrangement, what Dillmer calls an intuitively terrible idea is actually the best one going.

With those discouraging words setting the tone of her article, Dillner reluctantly gets to the matter at hand and admits that the latest study actually does find that kids with shared residence orders do better than those with a single parent. Fair enough, but she then hastens back to her real theme which seems to be not to trust shared parenting.

Shared residency doesn’t work so well if there is conflict (if there is violence, then sharing is not an option), if the children are adolescents (less keen on two homes), or if the children don’t like one parent.

All of that is basically wrong. In fact, as Dr. Edward Kruk has pointed out, shared parenting tends to ameliorate conflict. He states in his recent book, The Equal Parent Presumption, “the position that equal or shared parenting is not in children’s best interests in cases in which parents are in conflict over post-divorce parenting arrangements is not supported by research.”

And the notion that, “if there is violence, then sharing is not an option,” is not only untrue, but obviously unworkable. Kruk again:

A high proportion of first-time family violence (usually of a reciprocal nature) occurs after divorce.

And,

A meta-analytic review of family violence research of 250 empirical studies (Fiebert 2004) concludes that women and men perpetrate and receive abuse at comparable levels; women are as physically aggressive as men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners.

So, if much family violence occurs after divorce, most of it involves both parents and men and women are equally likely to perpetrate and suffer from DV, how is it that Dillner’s statement can be correct? If it were, then usually when there is violence, regardless of how minor, neither parent can have or keep custody of the kids. Make sense? Hardly.

And of course her excuse to oppose shared parenting “if the children don’t like one parent” is nothing more than yet another invitation to give parental alienators a pass.

As I’ve said before, people like Dillner writing for publications like The Guardian, that reflexively resist shared parenting despite the overwhelming weight of science on its side always do only that. They attempt to criticize shared parenting on all sorts of trumped up charges. But what they never, ever do is propose an alternative. Readers are supposed to believe that, because some people have thought up some criticisms of shared parenting (however baseless or ill-conceived), then the status quo must be just fine.

It’s not. Children, fathers, mothers and the public purse are all seriously harmed by the custody arrangements imposed on them by judges who are largely ignorant of the science of parenting and children’s best interests. Which brings us to Dillner’s last preposterous claim.

It is easy to selectively pick the research to suit your argument…

It is if you support shared parenting, but if you don’t, finding “research to suit your argument” is well nigh impossible. As Canadian economist Paul Millar wrote in his book The Best Interests of Children, sole parenting of children post-divorce “is not only unsupported by evidence, but, worse, appears to promote harmful outcomes for children through the legal support given the destruction of one of the important parental relationships for the child.”

That may be why Dillner cited no evidence for the proposition that sole parenting is A-OK for children. Indeed, it’s not easy at all to pick research to suit that argument. There’s not any.

Buried at the very last, Dillner admits that “the research is clear that children benefit from two parents being interested in them, and sharing residency encourages this.” But most of the rest of her article is a brief against exactly that conclusion. Should readers have made it to the end of her piece, they’d have gotten the same message we see so often in the likes of The Guardian – that shared parenting is an excuse for abusive fathers to deny mothers what they deserve – the kids.

It’s a false claim, but one that keeps getting made regardless of the facts. Malin Bergstrom and other scrupulous researchers know better, but publications like The Guardian doggedly support a dysfunctional status quo.

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