March 25, 2014
By Linda Nielsen, EdD, Professor, Wake Forest University

What’s a woozle? And what role does it play in child custody decisions and custody law reform? If you remember Winnie the Pooh, he and his friends become obsessed with the idea that they are being stalked by a frightening beast they called a woozle. In fact, they are being deceived by their own footprints as they walk around in circles. In social science a woozle is a belief or a claim based on inaccurate, partial, or flawed data — data that have been repeatedly misrepresented, misinterpreted or “woozled” in ways that end up influencing public opinion, individuals’ decision making, and public policy.

This paper illustrates the woozling process that has contributed to the creation of a powerful and damaging child custody woozle: After parents’ separate, infants and toddlers who spend even one night a week in their father’s care are more irritable, distressed, inattentive, vigilant and anxious with their mothers, and physically stressed. In short, up until the age of four children should live exclusively, or nearly exclusively, with their mothers. The one study that has frequently been proffered as evidence that overnighting has a “deleterious impact” on infants and toddlers is an Australian study commissioned by the attorney general’s office (McIntosh, Smyth, Kelelar & Wells, 2010, Post separation parenting plans: Outcomes for infants and children).

By examining the discrepancies between the actual data and the woozles that have arisen from the study, this paper deconstructs the mythical woozles.  For example, the “wheezing woozle” claims that infant wheezing is a valid and reliable measure of stress — stress that is caused by spending more than 3 nights a month in the father’s care. In reality, wheezing is caused by many factors having nothing to do with stress — including mold, pets, cigarette smoke, and carpet in the house. Moreover, the toddlers who frequently overnighted wheezed less than those who rarely overnighted. Likewise, the “whining woozle” claims that overnighting causes infants to be more irritable and to exhibit “severely distressed” behavior towards their mothers. The woozle conveniently ignores the fact that the frequently overnighting infants had exactly the same mean score on the irritability scale as the infants in intact families — and that infants who frequently overnighted were no more irritable than infants who never overnighted. As for the “severely distressed behavior” woozle, the overnighters’ scores on the behavioral problems test were well within normal range — and 50% of the mothers in the nationwide survey reported these same types of problems with their two to three year-olds: sometimes refusing to eat or gagging on food, clinging to her when she tries to leave, getting angry with her, or hitting and biting her. More disturbing still, the “anxiety/insecurity woozle” was based on three questions taken from the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scale which is designed to assess infants’ readiness to begin talking. This novel “scale” was created solely for this study and had no established validity or reliability as a measure of anxiety, stress, attachment or insecurity. Because the overnighting infants tried to get their mother’s attention and gazed at her more often — which on the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales is a positive sign of readiness to learn language — these researchers concluded that the infants were more “watchful and wary” about their mom’s whereabouts, indicating more anxiety and insecurity in their relationship with her.

How are woozles born and raised? And how can they be used to dupe judges, parents, and policy makers into opposing shared overnight parenting plans for children under the age of four? Woozling is a process where many factors work in conjunction to distort the data. Among these woozling techniques are exaggerating, misrepresenting, and frequently reporting only the data that support the woozles, while ignoring and failing to report the data that undermine them. Another is downplaying or completely overlooking the limitations of the study — especially those that make it in appropriate to generalize the findings to the general population. Discussions and presentations about the Australian study seldom, if ever, mention its many limitations — especially in reports to the media and presentations or articles that reach large audiences of professionals involved in custody decisions. Among the limitations were that: 90% of the infants’ parents had never been married to each other and many had never lived together; no more than 20 infants were in the rarely overnighting group, and no reliability or validity was reported for four of the six instruments. Then too, this study was predicated on a theory that is no longer widely held by attachment theorists: the belief (woozle) that infants form a “primary” attachment to only one parent — the one who provides most of their daily care -and that spending time overnight away from this primary parent jeopardizes the security of their attachment. In fact, however, empirical studies have shown that infants form attachments to both parents at about the same time, and that one attachment is not more important than the other. When we peel back the layers of the woozles based on this Australian study, the highly publicized and alarming warnings against overnighting are unwarranted and grossly exaggerated. In short, the study is ill suited for making any recommendations for or against overnighting for children under the age of four.

Unfortunately the woozles arising from this particular study have been repeated frequently in the media, in academic journals, and at conferences — woozling judges, lawyers, legislators, custody mediators and other professionals involved in custody decisions. And as is the case with woozles, those studies that have found no ill effects and some positive effects for infants and toddlers who overnight in their father’s care have been overlooked. How do we corral these damaging woozles once they are on the loose? First, share the woozles article with people who are involved in making custody decisions — especially with parents who are in the process of designing parenting plans for their very young children. Second, make the media aware of how this particular study has been woozled in ways that are depriving many infants and toddlers of loving, attentive care from both parents.  

Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans and Family Court
Psychology, Public Policy and Law (May, 2014, in press)
For a PDF copy of the paper, email: [email protected] 

Dr. Linda Nielsen, Professor of Education, Wake Forest University, Winston Salem, NC, is a nationally recognized expert on father-daughter relationships.  Dr. Nielsen has been teaching, researching and writing about adolescents and father-daughter relationships since 1970. Her research and advice on father-daughter relationships have been featured on a PBS documentary and on NPR with Frank Stasio as well as in newspapers, magazines and radio shows nationwide, including The Wall Street Journal, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Military Families, and the national PTA Magazine.  Since 1991 she has been teaching her "Fathers & Daughters" course — the only college course in the country that focuses exclusively on father-daughter relationships. Her current research focuses on father-daughter relationships and shared residential parenting in divorced families. In addition to having written numerous research articles for scholarly journals such as the Harvard Educational Review, Dr. Nielsen has written five books on adolescence and father-daughter relationships:

Recently Robert Franklin discussed Dr. Nielsen’s 10 Myths About Shared Parenting Debunked.

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