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April 24, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The war in the scientific community over shared parenting of children under the age of four whose parents have separated continues. If there is a war among the scientists over shared parenting of older children, it’s not much of one. As I’ll discuss later, those who oppose shared parenting have little-to-nothing on which to base their opposition, save quibbles about the science that supports it.

Anyone who’s interested in the developing science on parenting and children’s welfare, should read this article by Dr. Richard Warshak. It summarizes the history of scientific inquiry into shared parenting and how that was derailed by a very small cadre of scientists using extremely shaky methodology to attempt to undermine the scientific consensus on shared parenting for very young children. He also summarizes the science on shared parenting generally and brings readers up to date on what’s taken place since 2014 when he published his consensus report on shared parenting and children’s overnights to which 110 of the world’s most prominent social scientist explicitly lent their weight.

Briefly, since 2014, scientific developments have only bolstered the findings and recommendations of the consensus report and those few who are still opposed have backtracked on their earlier claims. For example,

Fabricius reported long-term benefits to college students who, in the first three years of life, spent overnights with their fathers after their parents separated.60 These teenage and young adult children felt more important to their fathers than did those who had been deprived of overnights early in their lives. They had better relationships with their fathers at no cost to the quality of their relationships with their mothers. On the other hand, having fewer overnights with fathers during infancy was associated with more long-term harm to the father-child relationship. Also, there were no indications of any long-term stress-related health problems related to overnight parenting time for infants with their fathers.61 The study concluded: “[I]nfant behaviors that have caused the concern about overnight parenting time are either temporary, or they do not signal the long-term effects that were feared.”62 And, “Of much greater concern is the substantial detriment to the long-term father-child relationship associated with lack of overnight parenting time with fathers. . . .”63 Overall the study concluded, “We see long-term risks to the father-child relationship in the absence of overnight parenting time during the first 3 years, but only benefits to both parents with the presence of overnight parenting time.”64 And, “Maximizing parenting time protects children from harm to the father-child relationship, from harm to the mother-child relationship, and from harm due to parent conflict.”65

The other study to come out since 2014 simply continued the criticism of one of the two studies criticizing parenting arrangements that include infants’ overnight stays with their fathers. That study, by Tornello, et al, is so astonishingly flawed as to be useless to any principled effort to ascertain the best interests of children under four whose parents no longer live together. The only other study to deviate from the status quo on that topic was authored by McIntosh, et al, and is, if anything, worse than the Tornello effort. More about that tomorrow.

So the recent work of Dr. William Fabricius referred to by Warshak continues the scientific support for shared parenting even of the youngest of children. His survey of young adults who’d lived with shared parenting when they were infants or toddlers demonstrate that they have better relationships with their fathers, but equally good ones with their mothers when compared to young adults brought up in sole custody during their earliest years. And of course the absence of overnight contact between fathers and children substantially impairs the father-child bond long, long after the child is out of diapers. According to Fabricius, there are long-term benefits to overnights with Dad and long-term detriments to kids who have none. That seems pretty straightforward.

And what of the opposition to shared parenting for children younger than four? Those fringe few scientists have nothing new to offer.

It was anticipated that some colleagues would disagree with the consensus report opinions and recommendations. But in the two years since its publication, no article, including those by McIntosh et al., has explicitly identified any errors in the report or disputed any of its conclusions and recommendations. Confronted with the critiques of their studies, one might expect researchers either to show where the consensus report and other scholars’ critiques are mistaken or to modify their previous interpretations of their data and communicate their amended conclusions to colleagues and the general public.

The consensus report was about as damning of the efforts of Tornello, McIntosh, et al as can be imagined. That of course was because their studies were so poorly done. So, as Warshak says, wouldn’t we expect those authors to come back defending their efforts with all guns blazing? After all, being so publicly and authoritatively humiliated by (and before) the scientific community, can’t have been pleasant. If McIntosh and the others had a serious counterargument, surely they’d have made it in the two years following the issuance of the consensus report. But they haven’t.

What they’ve done is to (a) backtrack on one of their previous claims and (b) simply pretend the others don’t exist, i.e. not exactly a clarion call for their extremely marginalized position.

McIntosh et al. have not yet acknowledged or addressed concerns about three of the four measures in their study. But after the consensus report was published, they conceded in one article that their 3-item visual monitoring scale has “relatively low” reliability and is a “weak link” in their study.69 Otherwise, Smyth and McIntosh have ignored the critiques that their measures were untrustworthy.

To call that less than impressive should, I think, put me in the running to win Understatement of the Month Award.

More on this tomorrow.

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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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