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January 31, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

This continues my thoughts on Professor Linda Nielsen’s most recent analysis of all 60 studies extant that compare children’s outcomes in sole parental custody (SPC) with those in joint parental custody (JPC).  (SPC refers to either sole or primary custody while JPC refers to arrangements in which each parent has the children at least 35% of the time.)

Interestingly, Nielsen points out that rates of JPC seem to be increasing in a number of jurisdictions. She cites studies of case outcomes in Wisconsin, Washington State, Arizona and internationally in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, two provinces of Canada, and Spain’s Catalan region. 

Her analysis aims to ascertain whether existing studies that find children in JPC doing better on a range of outcomes are actually measuring the effects of JPC or some other variable such as family income or family conflict.  After all, if the JPC families studied tend to be wealthier and/or less conflictual than the SPC families or control groups, then perhaps those factors and not JPC itself are what promote children’s better outcomes. Unsurprisingly, opponents of shared parenting have raised the possibility.

Is it true, as some social scientists have claimed (e.g., Smyth, McIntosh, Emery, & Howarth, 2016), that if JPC children have better outcomes than SPC children, it is probably because JPC parents have far more money and far less conflict?

As to parental conflict, the answer is a strong “no.”

In 14 of the 19 studies that addressed this question, JPC couples did not have significantly less conflict or more cooperative, communicative coparenting relationships than SPC couples (see Nielsen, 2017, for citations to the 19 studies).Compared to SPC couples, in 3 studies JPC couples had less conflict; in one study they had more, and in one study the conflict differences depended on the age of the children. In short, cooperation and low conflict are not likely to account for JPC’s children’s better outcomes.

I appreciate Prof. Nielsen’s academic caution, but, when 15 of 19 studies are of JPC parents with either more conflict or about the same level of conflict as their SPC peers, and yet the kids in JPC arrangements do better, it’s not too much to say that family conflict isn’t an excuse to oppose shared parenting.

Nor are those outcomes explained by the agreeability of the parents at the outset of the divorce process. In other words, it’s theoretically possible that parents who end up with JPC were simply more amenable to it in the first place.  So their conflict levels would tend to be lower and their ability to make shared parenting work would be greater.  Alas for the opponents of shared parenting, that doesn’t fly either.

Are JPC parents a unique group who, unlike SPC parents, agree to their plan “voluntarily” and without being “forced” to agree to share? According to the 7 studies that have specifically addressed this question, the answer is “no” (Nielsen, 2017). The percentage of couples who were initially opposed to JPC at the outset ranged from 30% to 80% of the parents. In each of these studies, however, JPC children had better outcomes than SPC children despite the fact that many of their parents had not agreed to the plan at the time they were separating…

In the 19 studies that considered parental conflict, JPC children had better outcomes on all measures in 9 studies, equal to better outcomes in 5 studies, equal outcomes in 2 studies, and worse outcomes on one measure but equal or better outcomes on other measures in 3 studies. 

In short, opponents of shared parenting can’t look to lower parental conflict or greater cooperation to explain kids’ better outcomes in shared care.

What about family income? It’s well known that affluence tends to benefit kids.  So perhaps kids in JPC just happen to have wealthier parents than SPC children.  Why that would be, I have no idea, but again, it’s a theoretical possibility.  So what does the research tell us?

Twenty-five of the 60 studies that compared children’s outcomes controlled for family income…  In the 25 studies that considered family income, JPC children had better outcomes on all measures in 18 studies, equal to better outcomes in 4 studies, equal outcomes in 1 study, and worse outcomes on one measure but equal or better outcomes on other measures in 2 studies. 

So family income doesn’t explain kids’ better outcomes either.  Nielsen rhetorically asks why it should be that income doesn’t affect those outcomes and promises a thorough review of the literature on that question in a paper that’s to be published sometime this year.  Still, she offers a teaser:

In a Swedish study with 391 JPC families and 654 SPC families, the 10 to 18 year-olds with the wealthier and most well-educated parents were more stressed and more anxious than children with less wealth, less educated parents (Fransson, Turunen, Hjern, Östberg, & Bergström, 2016). Moreover, having a parent with a graduate degree was more closely linked to children’s stress and anxiety than was the physical custody plan. The researchers speculated that highly educated, higher income parents might put more academic and social demands on their children, which, in turn, increases children’s stress and anxiety.

Similarly, in a French study with 91 children living in JPC, 34 living with their fathers and 328 with their mothers and 1,449 living in intact families, wealthier children were no less likely than less wealthy children to be caught in the middle of their parents’ arguments (Barumandzadah, Lebrun, Barumandzadah, & Poussin, 2016). SPC children were also just as likely as JPC children to be caught in the middle of their parents’ arguments. Money did not buy happiness in the sense that wealthier children were not more protected from their parents’ conflicts.

It’s beginning to look like children’s well-being depends on the quality of their relationships with their parents.  Needless to say, joint parenting allows good relationships to continue post-divorce and offers the possibility for weaker ones to strengthen. 

It’s true, for example, that fathers whose relationships with their kids may be somewhat remote due to their emphasis on supporting their families tend, with significant parenting time following divorce, to become more complete parents.  It’s also true that male parents tend to take a back seat to their female partners in parenting when the two are together. That may well be a result of hormonal factors.  But those same factors lead to men stepping into the breach when Mom either can’t or won’t do the main work of parenting.

Divorce with shared parenting looks like a modern-day version of that very thing, i.e. the female not doing the parenting for a time.  The male brain is constructed to step in during his parenting time and that’s exactly what many fathers do.  Only after divorce can they become fully parental because they’re wired that way. So it may be that shared parenting is unintentionally designed to play on fathers’ tendency to take on a full parenting role when Mom’s not there to do the whole job.

Such at any rate is my theory on that subject.  Meanwhile, opponents of shared parenting have theorized that conflict and income may explain children’s better outcomes in JPC than SPC.  Existing science proves them wrong.  They should be careful; that’s getting to be a habit. 

 

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