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April 28, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Having thoroughly demolished the McIntosh, et al and the Tornello, et al studies, Dr. Richard Warshak goes on to summarize the science on shared parenting generally and enumerate the recommendations of the 110 prominent scientists worldwide who endorsed his 2014 paper distilling that science. For laypersons, that 2014 consensus report and Warshak’s latest paper are among the best summaries of the state of science on parenting time and children’s welfare post-divorce. As I mentioned in my first piece on Warshak’s latest report, it’s interesting that, in the two years following the consensus report, none of the scientists who consistently oppose shared parenting has offered anything in rebuttal.

So, one of the common shibboleths brought up by opponents time and again is that shared parenting may be all very well for parents who divorce amicably, but those who litigate shouldn’t share custody.

This hypothesis lacks empirical support. The Stanford Child Custody study39 found that children in joint physical custody (living at least one-third of the time with their fathers) compared with children in sole physical custody were most satisfied with the custody plan and showed the best long-term adjustments, even after controlling for factors that might predispose parents to select joint physical custody (such as education, income, and initial levels of parental hostility).40 In fact in 80% of the joint physical custody families one or both parents initially did not want and did not agree to the arrangement.41…

A meta-analysis of 33 studies also reported better emotional, behavioral, and academic functioning for children in joint physical custody compared to children in sole custody, regardless of the level of conflict between parents.43 Studies that measured the amount of the father’s parenting time found that more time with the father is not associated with poorer child outcomes in high-conflict families (with the exception of families where there is violence or abuse).44 In a large-scale Australian study (not the one critiqued earlier), one to two years after separation, conflict was neither more nor less damaging for children in shared care-time arrangements than for children in other custody arrangements (with the exception of reports by mothers who had concerns about children’s safety in the care of the father).45 Rather than magnify harmful effects of parental conflict, several studies suggested that shared parenting may protect children from some of its negative consequences.46

Plus, one thing that exacerbates parental conflict is frequency of interaction. The more exes see each other, the worse can be their conflict. The slightest bit of ingenuity on a judge’s part can reduce those interactions to almost nothing. Consider the typical parenting arrangement. Dad picks up little Andy and Jenny on Friday of week One and drops them off on Sunday. He does the same on week Three. The other four weeks, he picks up and drops off one day during the week. That’s a total of six pick-ups and six drop-offs for a total of twelve interactions with Mom.

But if he has equal custody, Mom drops the kids off at school on Friday morning and Dad picks them up that afternoon. Dad takes them to school the following Friday and Mom picks them up that afternoon. The kids have equal time with both parents, but Mom and Dad never clap eyes on each other. Simple and conflict free. Warshak makes the same point.

One way in which shared parenting time can reduce children’s exposure to tension-filled communications between parents is that spending longer periods of time with each parent reduces the number of transfers between parents. For instance, spending two hours with one parent and then returning to the other parent’s home the same day means the child makes two transitions in one day. Simply extending the two-hour evening contact into an overnight reduces the transitions between homes to only one per day.

Then there’s the claim by opponents of children’s right to both parents that equal parenting will promote parental conflict. But of course the opposite is true. By rewarding one parent with sole or primary custody, the current system encourages that parent to create or exacerbate conflict.

A policy of automatically restricting children’s time with one of the parents when a couple is labeled as “high conflict” brings additional drawbacks and deprives children of the protective buffer of a nurturing relationship with one of their parents.47 This policy sends parents the message that generating or sustaining conflict can be an effective strategy to override shared custody.48 This discourages civil communication and cooperation, and may reduce children’s time with the parent who is less angry, who does a better job of shielding the children from conflict, and who recognizes and supports the children’s need for positive relationships with both parents.49 Any policy that encourages the instigation and maintenance of conflict between parents by suggesting that such behavior might be rewarded with more parenting time puts the needs of the children second to the desires of whichever parent opposes sharing parenting time. Such a policy contradicts the best-interest standard whose primary purpose is to ensure that the child’s welfare trumps parental entitlements.50

That of course takes care of another claim by the opponents of shared parenting – that shared parenting places the desires of parents above the needs of children. Nothing could be further from the truth. Again, the opposite is true. That shared parenting is better for children in almost all situations than sole or primary parenting, reveals congruence between the interests of children and those of parents. It’s interesting to note that opponents assume that the needs of children and those of parents are at odds. They’re not, but what does it say about those opponents that they take it for granted that parents and children are necessarily in conflict?

Besides, it’s not as if all parental conflict is the same. Some conflict is destructive and pathological, but much is of the normal, everyday variety. In ordering custody and parenting time, judges must be able to differentiate between the two. After all, much conflict between adults is in no way injurious to children and indeed, witnessing conflict and its resolution can be a valuable – even necessary - learning experience.

When considering the impact of parental conflict on the most beneficial parenting plans for children, it is important to recognize the heterogeneity of the dynamics of inter-parental conflict.52 The label high conflict couple implies that both parents actively engage in conflict. Although this is true in some cases, in other cases the label is a misnomer because one parent may be a victim of the other parent’s rage or attempts to marginalize the parent’s role in raising the child.53 In some cases the amount, intensity, and type of conflict resembles the level and type of disagreements over child-rearing decisions that occur normally between married or cohabiting parents who have different opinions about what is best for the child.

Tomorrow I’ll delve into the recommendations of Warshak’s consensus report.

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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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