August 26, 2019 by William Fabricius, Ph.D. Professor, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University
Many state legislatures are considering bills that would make it the norm for more children of divorce to live equal time with each of their parents, modeled on landmark laws in Arizona in 2013 and Kentucky in 2018. But in some states, legislators feel caught between supporting the Me Too movement, which holds men accountable for changing behaviors toward women that were countenanced in the past, and supporting equal parenting time, which holds fathers as equally good parents as mothers.
What is the connection between equal parenting time and Me Too? Is one about men’s rights and the other about women’s rights? Both are demanding deep-seated cultural changes, but are they at odds?
For the last 20 years, I have been studying the long-term effects on children associated with the different amounts of parenting time they had with each of their separated parents. It turns out that the standard, every-other weekend schedule with dad has had an unintended and largely unnoticed consequence.
Children who had the standard visitation schedule are unsure, into their 20s, about how much they actually matter to their fathers. Those who had more parenting time with their fathers are more assured that they matter to them, and those who had equal parenting time with both of their parents have equally strong, close, and emotionally secure relationships with both their parents, on a par with young adults whose parents stayed married.
Why should this be? My colleagues, students, and I have interviewed hundreds of children from divorced and intact families, and it has become clear that spending time together tells children they are important. For the younger children of divorce, suddenly not seeing dad for long stretches of time between visits means that he doesn’t want to be with them. That’s the only way they can understand it, and that plants the seeds of doubt that they matter to him.
We have been struck by this finding about equal parenting time and perceived mattering, because it aligns with a well-established finding from long-term studies of stress-related physical health. Lingering doubts about how much one matters to a parent release low, chronic levels of stress hormones into the brain and bloodstream, which over time are harmful. Insecurity and uncertainty about one’s relationship with either parent in young adulthood puts that child at risk for stress-related major mental and physical health problems in later life, including relationship difficulties with others, susceptibility to infectious and chronic diseases, and risk for early mortality.
If there is any more convincing evidence about what amount of parenting time is in children’s best interests, I am unaware of it. But what does this have to do with Me Too?
Real changes in the culture of men’s behavior toward women will come about on a person-to-person level. Individual men will have to see sexual advances as women do. In the following true story, the 30-year-old college graduate didn’t.
He was a new member of a work team at a multinational corporation. The team met for an after-hours work function, and a young woman member was being congratulated by the senior partners for her work. He soon put his hand on her body below her belt, and later tried to kiss her in the presence of her junior male work team members. They reported him. Her mental focus was broken by doubts and questions (“Why did that happen?” “What did I do?”); her preparation for leading a meeting the next day was interrupted; and her performance suffered.
He wasn’t a psychopath. He wasn’t a rapist. He just assumed he could do that to her. He may have otherwise gone on to a successful career in that organization, but the senior partners questioned him about the incident, he lied despite the witnesses, and he was fired.
He and she were at the same organizational level, and hence in competition for the few high performance evaluations given out each year. It is hard not to see his behavior as having given him a competitive edge, because it did -- or would have before Me Too. In the strategic tool box for getting ahead has always been a drawer marked “For Men Only.” It’s hard to resist the temptation to use those tools when they are camouflaged by layers of cultural meaning (“It was consensual.” “She should be flattered.” etc.). He may not even have been fully aware he was using one. She was.
The organization did the right thing to enforce a level playing field for its talented, competitive, rising stars. But what is also needed is cultural change for prevention to protect both our sons and daughters, and this is where I think equal parenting time has a role to play.
Divorced fathers with close, open relationships with daughters who are assured that they matter to their fathers will learn how their daughters experience the world of boys and girls, and men and women. They will certainly learn more than the “weekend dads” whose relationships with their daughters are much more likely to be in need of repair. Equal parenting time affords not only the closeness and trust, but also the time and leisure for daughters to share, and for dads to learn. And with equal parenting time, what fathers learn will surely transfer to their sons. Equal parenting time does not result in any loss of closeness and security with mothers, and also allows them the time and leisure to perform the equally important function of teaching their daughters and sons what the world has been, and is, for them.
Divorced fathers who learn to see the world of men and women from their daughters’ points of view will be a force for cultural change. They will reinforce these norms in how they interact with other men, and in what they model for their sons and daughters.
Equal parenting time and the Me Too movement are not at odds, and state legislators should not have to choose between them. Equal parenting time can help advance the Me Too movement, one divorced father at a time.
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