Warshak Destroys Opponents of Shared Parenting for Very Young Children

April 25, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

As I said in yesterday’s post, Dr. Richard Warshak’s latest piece is excellent for a number of reasons, one of which is his summary of the development of the social science on parental contact and child well-being post-divorce. Anyone at all familiar with that topic is also familiar with the dramatic disconnect between what the science says and what courts do.

Our society holds a curious double standard when it comes to encouraging hands-on shared parenting. For instance, we want dads involved with their infants and toddlers—diapering, feeding, bathing, putting to bed, soothing in the middle of the night, cuddling in the morning. But when parents separate, some people think that young children need to spend every night in one home, usually with mom, even when this means losing the care their dad has been giving them.

That double standard is more than merely curious, it’s self-defeating. Our public policy regarding father involvement in their children’s lives damages generation after generation and discourages fathers’ from being the type of parents most of them want to be. We’ve known for decades how wrong that policy is and how destructive.

A body of research from the 1970s to the 1990s challenged stereotypes and prejudices that had governed child custody decisions throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries. The results of social science studies throughout the United States converged to support the position that most children needed and wanted more contact with their fathers after divorce than they were having.1

In 1994, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reviewed the existing empirical evidence and in 1997, 18 members of that group said this:

Time distribution arrangements that ensure the involvement of both parents in important aspects of their children’s everyday lives and routines—including bedtime and waking rituals, transitions to and from school, extracurricular and recreational activities—are

likely to keep nonresidential parents playing psychologically important and central roles in the lives of their children.

The trend toward greater paternal involvement in children’s lives, both during marriage and after, continued, with one exception. When it came to infants and toddlers, some social scientists and most courts continued to favor a truncated version of the Tender Years Doctrine that holds that only mothers are valuable to very young children. Still, the social science on that began, like social science generally, to trend toward recognizing the value of fathers to even very young children.

In the aftermath of the 1997 consensus statement, subsequent articles on parenting plans for young children, and a growing body of research relevant to parenting plans, the importance of providing sufficient opportunities for children to develop and maintain high quality relationships with both parents became generally recognized as the accepted and settled science with respect to child custody issues.6 The decade between 2001 and 2011 saw increasing acceptance of overnights for infants and toddlers among mental health professionals, courts, and parents. This remained the zeitgeist until 2011.

Enter Australian academic Jennifer McIntosh, who, along with a very small group of like-minded others, proceeded to attempt to turn existing science regarding fathers and children under four on its head.

McIntosh advocated that one parent should be designated the primary caregiver, discouraged joint physical custody for children under the age of four, and called for the resurrection of blanket restrictions unless overnights were necessary and helped the primary caregiver.8

That’s almost word for word out of Goldstein, Solnit and Freud’s book Beyond the Best Interests of the Child that had long been discredited as a theory of child well-being in search of facts to support it (and failing). Did McIntosh and her cohorts have anything with which to support her ideas that ran so contrary to existing science? They did – their own work. McIntosh, et al and Tornello, et al, authored a single study each and have ever after presented their findings as gospel on overnights for kids.

Apart from the self-serving nature of their claims, their studies are prime examples of what the legal profession has long called “junk science.” In his most recent paper, Warshak is much gentler in his criticism of the two studies than they deserve, but even so, his analysis is damning.

So, for example, in examining how very young children fare when they lose their fathers post-divorce, McIntosh, et al studied couples in which the father very likely had had little or no contact with the child.

The Australian study’s sample is not representative of parents who are going through a divorce because most of the parents in the study were never married to each other (90% for the sample of infants and 60% for toddlers), and 30% had never even lived together. Nothing is known about the behavior and relationships between the parents and children prior to the couples’ separations.

It’s astonishing that anyone who wants to be considered a serious social scientist should seek to draw conclusions about the children of married parents with hands-on dads by studying unmarried couples and fathers who may or may not have ever set eyes on their children. That’s about as basic as it gets, but McIntosh, et al didn’t seem to mind. Still, there was worse to come.

For example, McIntosh frankly misrepresented the results of her study. On one hand she claimed that “Infants under two years of age living with a nonresident parent for only one or more nights a week were more irritable and were more watchful and wary of separation from their primary caregiver than those primarily in the care of one parent.”

Only in the Appendix of the 169-page report can readers discover that the irritability score for babies with no overnights actually is slightly worse than the score for babies who spent one or more nights per week with their other parent.20 Also, the mean irritability score for the frequent overnighters and the infants in intact families was identical, and the mean irritability score for all groups was within the normal range.

Never one to allow her own data that contradicts her desired conclusions to get in her way, McIntosh simply pretended that babies with no overnights with Dad were less irritable than others with some overnights. In fact, babies with at least one overnight per week did better than those with none and, in any event, none of the data fell outside the normal range of irritability for the little tykes. This is science?

But it gets worse still. As veteran researcher Linda Nielsen pointed out two years ago, in attempting to portray young children who spent nights with their fathers as faring worse than those who didn’t, McIntosh, et al, simply shanghaied measures of children’s behavior that have nothing to do with children’s well-being post-divorce into the service of her pet cause.

But, astonishing as that may be, her methodology got even worse. One of the measures she chose had been validated, but not for children’s welfare and not for anything to do with father presence or absence.

The Warshak consensus report observed that none of the four significant outcomes reported by McIntosh et al. were derived from measures that met basic scientific standards,24 a point also noted by Nielsen in greater detail.25

That’s right, none of the measures used by McIntosh had been validated for the purpose for which she used them. For example, scientists who study infants and toddlers have long noticed that children in that developmental range begin to look often to their mothers and to direct their attention to other things. This behavior has been validated as a predictor of the child’s starting to use language. In short, when a child starts to engage in that behavior, it’s a sign that the child is developing and will soon start to form words.

So McIntosh asked her group of mothers three questions extracted from the usual survey that determines incipient language usage and decided, entirely on her own, that children exhibiting that behavior were in fact anxious and suffering from having overnights with Dad. To summarize, she used methodology that had never been validated for any purpose, derived from methodology that’s been validated for a completely different purpose, nakedly asserted that a positive development was a negative one and, of all things, one that was related to care by fathers even though there was nothing to connect that behavior and father presence or absence.

That’s a methodology that’s so loony and so frankly biased that it’s hard to grasp. But suffice it to say that no scientist who’s truly trying to learn the truth about anything uses methodology that flawed. Only a scientist with a pre-conceived notion of the outcome she desires does such a thing.

The Tornello study was little better, and the Warshak consensus report shot both of them down. About both those things, I’ll write more next time.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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