December 15, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
And what of children’s relationships with their mothers? Surely more time with Dad, including overnights when children are under the age of three, must degrade the mother-child relationship. Yes, overnights may be good for father-child relationships later in the child’s life, but what of little Andy or Jenny’s bond to Mom?
The recent research by Dr. William Fabricius finds that those relationships, far from being made worse, actually benefit.
The findings disconfirm the hypothesis (George, Solomon, et al., 2011; Main et al., 2011; Sroufe & McIntosh, 2011) that more overnights away from mothers should harm the mother-child relationship. The current findings provided a strong disconfirmation, not only because benefits accrued to the mother-child relationship, but also because they were associated with overnights specifically during infancy. Overnights during infancy should have been the most harmful because infants lack the language and cognitive skills to understand time, recall the past, and anticipate future events.
What’s not to like? Frequent overnights with each parent are associated with better parent-child relationships when the child is making the transition to adulthood and tend to smooth that passage. And, as I’ll get to later, that connection between overnights and child well-being later in life may be more than simply correlational.
But the results of the Fabricius study go further still. Among other things, they undermine the theory of monotropy – that children form a primary bond to one parent, usually the mother, with the other parent, usually the father, being of less value to the child. Originated by Bowlby in the 70s, the theory of monotropy has long been out of favor and was finally abandoned by Bowlby himself, but it still rears its ugly head on occasion.
The finding that overnights during infancy were also associated with the quality of father-child relationships is contrary to the monotropy hypothesis for the following reason: in our sample mothers were most often the primary caregivers, and according to monotropy, infants should not have been developing simultaneous attachment relationships with fathers; however, the associations of overnights during infancy with the quality of both parent– child relationships suggests that infants were developing attachment relationships with both parents. This is consistent with other theoretical (e.g., Waters & McIntosh, 2011) and empirical (e.g., Kochanska & Kim, 2013; Main & Weston, 1981) evidence that infants form attachment relationships with mothers and fathers simultaneously.
Why might overnight stays be associated with better outcomes for children in their young adult years?
There are developmentally plausible processes by which overnights could lead to long-term benefits. Overnights allow the father to learn about the child by assuming the role of caregiver. In support of this, a review of 14 papers describing the effectiveness of 12 interventions for fathers of infants and toddlers (Magill Evans, Harrison, Rempel, & Slater, 2006) revealed that active participation with or observation of his child enhanced the father’s interactions with and positive perceptions of the child. Brazelton (e.g., Worobey & Brazelton, 1986) has long argued, consistent with modern transactional models of development (Sameroff, 2010), that how well parents learn about the child in the early years can alter the trajectory of their future relationships because it provides the foundation for coping with changes in the years to come. In support of this, Boyce et al. (2006) found that high father involvement during infancy helped protect children from the development of mental health problems at age 9. Regarding benefits to the mother-child relationship, overnights provide respite from caring for an infant alone, which could help the mother maintain a higher level of responsive parenting.
To lay persons like me, that seems altogether plausible. A level of intimacy and father-child bonding surely comes about when he’s on his own with his child. It comes about in ways it cannot when he’s just visiting – often in mother’s home – for the day. Alone at night, the child is his to care for, nurture and protect in ways it’s not at any other time. And, as Fabricius points out, overnights with Dad relieve Mom of much of her 24-hour/day job of childcare, making her a better, more rested and more responsive parent when little Andy or Jenny returns to her care.
In family courts, judges will predictably be faced with some parents who agree to overnights with Dad and some who don’t. That makes the Fabricius study more valuable still because the cohort of parents studied were divided into those who did and those who didn’t agree to overnights. As such, it tends to reflect the real-world circumstances in family courts and therefore should inform policy as regards family court orders.
When parents disagreed, those who had more overnights imposed upon them, up to and including equal overnights, had better parent-child relationships (see Figure 6). Overall, they had slightly but non-significantly more overnights at age 2 than parents who agreed (see Table 3), and in both groups 14% of children had equal overnights with each parent at age 2. These findings provide evidential support for policies to encourage frequent overnight parenting time for infants and toddlers, even when one parent disagrees.
And, as promised, the findings of the Fabricius study lend support to the notion that frequent overnights are not just correlated with better outcomes for kids, but causative of them.
The overall “dose response” relation that we observed for father-child relationships (see Figure 4) is often indicative of causal processes.
That is, more overnights with Dad (i.e. the “dose”), up to equal overnights between Mom and Dad, were associated with greater child well-being (the “response”) and fewer overnights were associated with lesser child well-being. That strongly indicates that overnights have a causative effect on children’s well-being regarding their parent-child relationships later in life and the ease with which they navigate the seas of young adulthood.
This study should inform public policy and the actions of family court judges. It should also go a long way toward laying to rest previous claims that overnights were detrimental to children or that they should be approached with caution.
We’ll see how this study is received by the dwindling number of academics opposed to kids having overnights with their fathers. As the great Mr. Berra said, “It’s not over till it’s over.”
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