December 14, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The notion that overnight stays with Dad are bad for kids when they’re under three years old continues to take a beating. Those opposed to young children spending nights with their fathers never had much on which to base that opposition. Jennifer McIntosh offered up one study that was so flawed it gives essentially no support for the theory and Tornello’s effort was no better. McIntosh actually used measures of child well-being that had never been validated for what she claimed to be the problem with overnights, i.e. insecure attachment to mother. The measure she used – the child’s attempts to get mother’s attention – had actually been validated for the incipient acquisition of language, i.e. a positive development, but never for insecurity of attachment.
Tornello’s study used a population – that of the Fragile Families and Child Well-being study – that is in no way representative of the population generally. Its results were ambiguous and ultimately flawed due to the fact that many of the custodial parents were fathers, even though it purported to study attachments to mothers.
In short, the two studies were amateur productions.
But now Professor William Fabricius of Arizona State University has produced a study that strongly contradicts the few remaining researchers who oppose overnights with dad. While it’s not the last word on the subject (nothing ever is), it powerfully suggests that not only are overnight stays with dad beneficial to children, but for their parents as well. More specifically, kids who had significant numbers of overnights with their fathers before the age of three reported better parent-child relationships with both parents later in life.
Fabricius surveyed mothers and fathers who’d separated when their children were under the age of three. He also surveyed those same children when they were young adults, i.e. when they were trying to negotiate the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. He reports his results in the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law, November 28, 2016. The write-up is entitled “Should Infants and Toddlers Have Frequent Overnight Parenting Time with Fathers? The Policy Debate and New Data.”
The answer is ‘yes.’ The news out of Prof. Fabricius’ study is, as they say, “all good.”
The current study showed that more overnight parenting time with fathers, up to and including equal numbers of overnights with both parents, when children were toddlers (2 years of age), as well as when they were infants (under 1 year of age), were associated with more secure relationships with each of their parents during the challenges and uncertainties of emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2004). Those young adults who had more overnights felt closer to their parents, were more likely to remember their parents as having been warm and responsive during their childhood and as having enjoyed spending time together, blamed their parents less for family problems, and now were more certain that they were important and mattered to their parents.
Opponents of very young children having overnight time with their fathers might argue that a lack of overnights can be made up during the day. Wrong.
Overnights at age 2 made an independent contribution to better parent-child relationships over and above the subsequent parenting time in childhood and adolescence. This means that “lost” overnight parenting time at age 2 was not made up by parenting time later. Overnights at age 2 also made an independent contribution to better parent-child relationships over and above any other benefits conferred by more parent education, less parent conflict up to five years post-separation, more parent agreement about overnights, later parent separations (in the child’s third rather than first or second year), or child sex.
But surely parental conflict makes overnights with Dad unadvisable, right? Wrong again.
Importantly, the same strength and patterns of associations between overnights at age 2 and parent- child relationships occurred regardless of conflict, disagreement about overnights, college education, and age at separation. This means that it is not true that overnights “worked” only for parents who had less conflict, or more agreement about overnights, or were more educated.
Opponents of children having meaningful relationships with their fathers have always played the issue of parental conflict as their trump card. Where there’s conflict, they say, Dad must butt out. Here’s what Fabricius reports one mother he surveyed said of her experience:
Her survey indicated that she and the child’s father had the highest level of conflict before and during the separation, that they had disagreed because the father wanted more overnights, and that the court nevertheless had imposed four overnights per 2-week period starting when the child was under 1 year old. She then added,
Parents never talked again after court decision. Judge made sure that father picked up children from school and returned children to school. It worked and children grew up and did well. Children developed good relationships with both parents. Mother’s counselor gave great advice: Stay out of children’s relationship with father. They must figure it out. Mother was told that if she did well, her children would do well. Children never knew any different and dealt with difficult issues better than their peers (emphasis in original).
And what of McIntosh and Tornello? Fabricius gives them short shrift, I suspect because their work has been so thoroughly debunked by, among others, Dr. Linda Nielsen, that the community or academics reading the current paper already know the many problems of their work. Still, Fabricius pauses to make sure readers understand (a) why his results contradict the previous two and (b) that his work has validity.
The question arises why the current study showed benefits of overnights for mothers and fathers during infancy and toddlerhood while each of the previous studies included mostly ambiguous, null, or contradictory findings. The only two indications of harm to the mother-child relationship were ambiguous because they were obtained with measures that lack demonstrated validity (i.e., “visual monitoring” in McIntosh et al., 2010, 2013, and mother ratings of attachment behaviors in Tornello et al., 2013). In the current study, three of the five parent-child relationship measures have previously demonstrated validity (Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000; Parker, 1989; Schenck et al., 2009; Suh et al., 2016); the validity of the other two for both parents is established by their correlations with the first three, as revealed by the factor analysis (see Table 2).
I’ll have more to say about this important study tomorrow.
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