As a young psychology intern in the late 1970s, my first patients were boys from divorced homes, suffering from what was then called “father hunger.” In those days, when parents split up, dads fell by the wayside. Fathers saw their children at the mothers’ discretion. This customary fallout from divorce reflected the belief that mothers are supremely important while fathers are expendable. We’ve come a long way since then.

Observing the problems that were being attributed to divorce, my colleagues and I began conducting studies in the late 1970s to learn how to help children cope better when their parents parted ways. The results of our research in Texas, supported by the National Institute for Mental Health, converged with studies in California, Virginia, and Arizona. The message from this work was clear: children and their fathers usually (though not always) wanted and needed more time together than they were getting. All signs pointed to the benefits for most families of having two parents involved in children’s lives who jointly maintained responsibility for their care. This is what is now called shared parenting.

Toward the end of the 20th century, divorce decrees offered children visits with their father every other weekend. The term visits captured the transformation of dad into something like an uncle, where the children are guests in his home. Dad became an entertainment director: The contacts were fun, but the texture and depth paled in comparison to a realistic parent-child relationship. At that time, only a handful of studies had peered into families in which divorced parents shared custody.

advertisement

We now have more than 50 studies of joint physical custody. Using different methods, and examining families in the United States and abroad, the results are encouraging: children who spend at least 35 percent time with each parent, rather than live with one and visit the other, have better relationships with their fathers and mothers and do better academically, socially, and psychologically. As will be described next week at the International Conference on Shared Parenting in Boston, they get better grades; are less likely to smoke, get drunk, and use drugs; and are less susceptible to anxiety, depression, and stress-related illnesses.

Despite the obvious benefits of shared parenting, gender barriers don’t crumble easily and legal reform doesn’t usually happen without pushback. Although critics of shared parenting concede that children whose parents share physical custody enjoy many advantages, they reason that these children do better because their parents have more money and less conflict, not because their children spend nearly equal time with each parent. The critics also believe that if one parent opposes shared custody, it’s a bad plan for that family.

Linda Nielsen, a professor of educational and adolescent psychology at Wake Forest University, drilled into the research to test these ideas. She found that children whose parents share physical custody have better outcomes even when one parent initially opposed the arrangement and even when conflict between the parents was high. And the benefits of shared parenting were independent of the parents’ income. The lesson from her work? To ensure better outcomes for children of divorced parents, focus on improving the quality of their relationships with each parent by maximizing the time spent with each of them.

Most psychologists recognize the importance of keeping both parents actively involved in their children’s lives. But some draw the line when it comes to young children. Many people still think that moms should care for infants and toddlers and that we jeopardize children’s wellbeing if we trust dads with the job.

In practice, this means that young children whose parents split up spend every night in their mother’s home. Sleeping overnight at dad’s house is prohibited, even though the same child sleeps at day care, naps at dad’s house on Saturdays, and has sleepovers at grandma’s.

This blanket restriction continues even though dads push the baby stroller a lot more today than ever before in history. In dual-earner families, fathers account for 41 percent of the total time that both parents engage with their infants. This is good news for their children.

Fathers benefit from on-the-job experience just as mothers do. They learn to read their baby’s signals and respond sensitively. Fathers may even have a greater impact than mothers in some areas such as language development and persistence in facing challenging obstacles — the “can do” attitude that is essential to success.

To assess where science stands on the issue of shared parenting and overnights for young children, I spent two years reviewing the relevant scientific literature and vetting my analyses with an international group of experts. This work, published in an American Psychological Association journal, was endorsed by 110 leading researchers and practitioners.

Here are the two main conclusions: First, shared parenting should be the norm not just for children whose parents live together, and not just for older children, but also for children of all ages whose parents live apart from each other. Children need a father, not an uncle-daddy. Second, if we want to give children the best chance for normal relationships with their fathers, limiting fathering time to daytime hours until children enter kindergarten is not the way to do that.

To be sure, shared parenting is not for all families after divorce. But there’s a general consensus that it is good for many of them.

If we value dad soothing his fretful baby at 3 a.m. or reading “Goodnight Moon” to his toddler while the parents are living together, why deprive the child of these expressions of fatherly love just because the parents no longer live together, or just because the sun has set?

Richard A. Warshak, PhD, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and the author of “Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report” and “Divorce Poison: How To Protect Your Family From Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing.”

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • I agree with your statement. Fathers are still being seen as the parent that is not important. “Go figure” who makes these decisions. In my view a child has the right to both parents, unless there are serious concerns or risk to that child by a parent. Both parents are able to contribute valuable lessons to that a child. As a single parent of 5 children, I felt that it was important that the father was involved in the children’s lives however the father felt different and left he made no attempt to contact them or have any input in their lives, Sad really.
    Therefore I say his loss. I say the law needs to change to give both parents equal share of caring for the child.

  • I see you wrote this in 2017. I agree with most of what was written. But here we are in 2019 and the family courts across the nation and even the globe are still treating fathers as second class humans and even criminalizing them just for being a dad. The family court system and the money incentives from our government are driving these still archaic notion that mom is in the best interest of the child. The best interest of the child doctrine is a false pretense to hide the nature of this corrupt machine plaguing Fathers still.

    We need to see it shut down and legislation that validates the role of the father. And puts 50/50 shared parenting as the standard.

  • Hi,
    I’m now very confused on my decision. What is good for kids , me and my ex husband for what to choose on the divorce custody?

  • Dear Dr. Warshak,
    In all sincerity, I am wondering whether or not you have been a child of divorce…I am working on a research paper about joint custody, and I am finding out a very interesting trend. Your answer would greatly help me in my endeavors.
    With thanks in advance for your kindness in replying,
    Kathleen Overton

  • I read the scholarly article you referenced. The research says that it is good for kids to have both parents involved in their lives. It also notes that for children under 4 sleepovers at both parents homes is important. This is common sense. No reasonable person disputes the importance of a child having a relationship with both bio parents. However the outcome of this research is different what I understand your article to propose. Your article advocates for mandating joint custody to be the norm. This is what judges are beginning to do- make joint custody the default in many states. It is different to say that a kid should have a relationship with both parents than it is to say that a kid should live out of a suitcase, switching between each home with different rules every week. I think all research should be taken in context. When you combine all of the research together related to life outcomes for children of divorce you will see that joint custody leads to more conflict between divorced parents. Increased parental conflict leads to more stress for kids which leads to more mental health issues and poorer life outcomes. Kids need a nourishing relationship with both parents but they also need a stable home. Joint custody is inherently unstable because it requires children to live out of a suitcase. Whereas with one parent having full custody a child may have 2 parents raising them (a bio parent and a step parent), with joint custody a child has up to 4 parents raising them (2 bio parents and 2 step parents). Also because each home is going to be different the child literally has 2 homes communicating different expectations- something a child cannot live up to or manage without significant stress and confusion.

    • Your reply ignores the main agreement across all studies. Sounds like you have a dog in this race. Living out of a suitcase? Ridiculous.

  • We have a child who has been in a joint custody situation for 10 years (from age 5-15). She is struggling with anxiety, depression and panic attacks, she has no friends and is failing in school. A child in a joint custody situation literally lives out of a suitcase (she brings her suitcase to her new home each Friday and switches homes each week). Each home could not be more different in our case and I assume that is similar in other cases of divorce. After all the parents were divorced for a reason right? Each home has different rules, expectations and values. The only consistency is that each family does not like the other- something that the child is painfully aware of. Meanwhile each of the homes has built new families and from these new families are children who now live full time with the bio parents. So the child from joint custody watches as each home embraces another child full time while the child whose parents have joint custody lives out of a suitcase. I don’t know what this feels like but can only imagine that it must be an alienating experience if everyone else in your family has one home and you are the only one who jumps around. The divorced bio parents each have different rules, different chores, different expectations for grades. One family takes the kid to extracurricular activities the other does not. Meanwhile the child never leaves the conflict between their parents. A joint parenting plan with half custody ensures that each drop off, pick up, school event or play date has to be discussed and negotiated between the divorced parents. Unfortunately the parents are divorced because they cannot problem solve together which makes the joint custody feel more like a mine field. The kid remains in the eye of the hurricane watching their parents fight constantly (over how to raise them). The parents fight as if they were still married but unlike still being married the child of divorce does not have the benefit of one stable home with two bio parents. Clinical research shows that when parents have high levels of conflict this leads to poorer outcomes for kids. Most divorced parents don’t get along. Joint custody forces the divorced parents to spend more time together which in turn increases the likelihood of conflict between the parents. The more a child is exposed to this conflict the more stress a child experiences. This is exactly what we do with joint custody which is now the default in our state. We force divorced parents to communicate constantly which means that they fight constantly. The children live out of a suitcase with inconsistent rules. They are forced to watch their parents fight, they have to navigate 2 dramatically different world views and sets of expectations and they literally don’t know at times where they will be sleeping that night as they await their parents to negotiate whose house the kid will be at for various activities. What a mess.
    Common sense shows that kids need one family and an open line of communication and regular visits with their bio parent who they do not live with. This is the most likely way to reduce parental discord and ensure the child experiences consistent expectations and boundaries with limited stress.
    I am of the belief that joint custody is more for the parents welfare than it is for the kids and contrary to this article, joint custody is actually detrimental for children. I do believe it is important for kids to have a relationship with both parents. I’m a child of divorce myself. My father had full custody. I spent every other weekend with my mother. I spoke to my mother on the phone everyday and anytime I wanted to see her for a sleepover I could. To this day my mom is still one of my best friends. But my father who had full custody made the parenting decisions, set the limits and communicated expectations. I had a much better life and childhood than my stepdaughter whose parents have joint custody has had. My brother and I were both A & B students, we have had positive life outcomes, no mental illness and good friendships. My stepdaughter on the other hand has a 1.9 GPA and is struggling with depression, anxiety, panic attacks and she has no friends. My stepdaughter whose parents have joint custody has 4 adults in her life (bio mom and dad, step mom and dad) each telling her different things. What a confusing world she lives in. You are mistaken to think that joint custody creates stability for children.

    • I could not agree with you more. My sons suffered tremendous anxiety flipping back and forth from my house to dads house. Then their father met someone and decided she was more important than them. He has not been in their lives for 3 years…. now they are straight A students, anxiety has dissipated, and they are excelling in all areas of their lives – sports, friends, school, relationships with family. He is a narcissistic person who would grill them on everything I was doing when they were in his presence. He was more focused on losing me than building up his relationship with them. Sad, but they see right through it, and are doing amazing. Joint custody should always be at the child’s discretion after they are 12. They know who makes them feel great, and who doesn’t!

  • What kind of biased, unscientific, no studies or facts based information are you sharing here?! Might do you great good to do more factual research and you’ll find that coparenting is hardly successful, and definitely inappropriate in many cases especially when there is and has been ongoing conflict. I dont need to be a psychologist to know this, just ask ANY abused victim of domestic violence aka intimate partner violence. This pure bull what has been written. Laughable

    • In cases where there is abuse, neglect or drug use this consensus is not applicable. This article is for parents that love their child nearly equally as the article states “to be sure shared parenting is not for all families after divorce. But there is a general consensus that it is good for most of them.” But it is clear to everyone, the author of this article included, that in cases of domestic violence, drug use, or neglect this is not the case.

Your daily dose of news in health and medicine

Privacy Policy