Dr. Linda Nielsen on the Value of Shared Parenting and How Mothers and Courts Thwart It

January 24, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

This summary of research compiled by the excellent Dr. Linda Nielsen is a must read. No family court judge should be allowed to be a judge, no family lawyer should be allowed to practice family law and no elected officeholder should be allowed to vote on family legislation without reading it and being able to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of its contents.

It’s entitled Divorced Fathers and Their Daughters: A Review of the Recent Research, and, as the title indicates, it’s mostly about the relationship between fathers and their female offspring. But don’t be fooled; Nielsen’s analysis covers all the high points of social science as it relates to fathers and their children and the parts the divorce system plays in damaging those father-child relationships. In the latter part of it, Nielsen goes into how best to cure what ails family relationships, and I’ll deal with that in a future post.

In a nutshell, up-to-date research shows that during marriage, but particularly during and after divorce, the legal system and mothers’ anti-father bias leads to a drastic breakdown in father-daughter relationships. That breakdown leaves fathers emotionally shattered and daughters struggling long into adulthood and often unsuccessfully to establish stable, trusting romantic relationships with men. Read the first eight pages of Nielsen’s summary of the scientific literature, and a clear picture emerges of a system that could well be called a “perfect storm” of social dysfunction. There’s a kind of evil genius at work that alienates children from their fathers and results in daughters growing up to be suspicious of men and fathers; they go on to have children themselves, get divorced and repeat the cycle. Meanwhile, girls growing up without fathers (or those insufficiently involved in their lives) demonstrate all the usual anti-social behaviors we’ve come to know go hand in hand with fatherlessness.

So, in the United States, 80% of the children of divorce spend only 10% – 15% of their time with their fathers, a fact that happens to have been borne out by the recent data out of Nebraska I’ve reported on. Some 25% spend none at all.

Girls who grow up without a father or just a marginalized one are far more likely than their peers with married parents to have sex and become pregnant as teenagers. Their grades are lower; they’re more likely to drop out of high school and not go to college. They’re more likely to be involved in crime and other anti-social behavior. They have greater psychological and emotional problems and are more likely to have issues of severe over- or underweight. As adults, they find it harder to form lasting intimate relationships with men.

Growing up fatherless is not what kids want. A whopping 85% of the children of divorce say they wanted more time with their fathers and didn’t want to live full time with their mothers. But they don’t, in part because the legal system of divorce and child custody decrees that they can’t, but also because their parents decided that while they were still married.

The great majority of parents establish relationships in which the father is the primary breadwinner and Mom is the primary parent. Although fathers are spending far more time with their children than in decades past, and the actual difference in parenting time on average is relatively slight, Mom’s role as primary caregiver allows her to form closer bonds with the children, particularly daughters. So, when Mom opts for divorce (70% of divorce actions are filed by mothers), she can easily spin the breakdown as Dad’s fault. That happens a lot with the unsurprising result that daughters tend to blame their fathers for the breakup of the family. That in turn results in a further distancing of her from her Dad.

Once the parenting plan is worked out, that alienation of the daughter from her father only continues. She, often with Mom’s active assistance, comes to think of Dad as uncaring about her; this drives her closer to Mom, a fact Mom is all-too-willing to accept. The relationship between mother and daughter often becomes reversed with the child playing parent to the parent and the parent playing child to the child. Nielsen refers to that as the daughter becoming “parentified.” That tends to result in depression and anxiety on the girl’s part, a condition that can last well into adulthood. That co-dependency means that the father-daughter bond is often never healed. Children or divorce are far more likely to report caring for their mothers emotionally and financially in old age than doing so for their fathers.

Of course, this marginalization of fathers in the lives of their children, and the attendant damage to the children’s psyches is at the very least abetted by family courts. Children don’t usually notice the role of the judicial system in alienating them from their dads. They tend to blame him for his absence and their strong sense of loss.

But of course, as Nielsen makes abundantly clear, family courts play a vital part in the marginalization of fathers and the lasting damage that does to their children. Amazingly, 60% of family lawyers admit the child custody system is biased against fathers who want shared parenting. More amazingly, when almost 5,000 judges and lawyers were surveyed, two-thirds of the judges and half the lawyers said that fathers aren’t treated fairly in child custody cases. (That raises the rather obvious question for those judges of why they don’t start – well – treating fathers fairly.)

When judges in four southern states were polled, 60% said that fathers with children under six should have no parenting time with them at all and that mothers are, by nature, better parents. (The “Tender Years Doctrine was abrogated in law decades ago, but lives on in fact.) Half of family court judges attending a legal conference said they were opposed to shared parenting. The custody evaluators they rely on to advise them on custody matters agree. Only 30% of them said that fathers with children under two should have their children for as much as a single night per week. And only 4% of custody evaluators reported favoring equal parenting post-divorce.

With that type of blatant anti-father bias on the part of decision makers in family courts, it’s no surprise that fathers see little of their children once Mom files for divorce. But why would that make any difference since 90% of custody cases are resolved, not by the intervention of a judge but by the agreement of the parent? As I’ve said many times and the science on the matter makes clear, fathers agree to radically anti-father arrangements, not because they like them but because they know they’re the best they can get. Mothers know the same thing, so they’re the ones to file for divorce and they’re unwilling at mediation to agree to anything less than 75% – 85% parenting time for themselves.

Speaking of mothers, how do they feel about sharing parenting time with the man they’re divorcing, the father of their children? They’re not enthusiastic. According to five different studies cited by Nielsen, the majority of mothers are unwilling to agree to let Dad have more than 25% parenting time, and usually nowhere near that much. And, as it turns out, research shows that 25% level is important. Specifically, the benefits of shared parenting simply don’t tend to accrue to kids who see their father less than that. When social scientists talk about the value of shared parenting for children, they’re talking about parenting time for dads in the 25% – 50% range, i.e. the type of time that’s almost never awarded even in cases that are termed “shared parenting.”

Not only are mothers generally dead set against fathers having more than minimal parenting time, courts and laws routinely genuflect before their wishes. Nielsen cites the 2008 Family Law in the Fifty States Digests for the fact that, “in almost all states, the mother must agree before the father can spend more than 15% or 20% of the time with the children. As usual, fathers’ rights reside in mothers’ hands.

That’s not just bad for fathers and children, it’s bad for everyone. In states in which the law has been amended to make it easier for fathers to have substantial time with their children, the divorce rate has gone down. That only makes sense. When mothers know they’ll get the kids, they file for 70% of the divorces; when they know they’ll have to share substantial time with Dad, they’re not so apt to vote with their feet. And fewer divorces generally makes for a less conflicted, more stable society.

Nielsen goes on to touch on parental alienation that mothers engage in more than do fathers a fact their children are aware of. As many as 80% of college students with divorced parents say they know their father wants to spend more time with them but that he can’t because their mother opposes it. Nielsen cites studies of false allegations of domestic violence leveled by mothers against fathers to avoid sharing custody and still others in which mothers convinced their daughters they’d been sexually molested by their fathers, once again fabricated to avoid paternal involvement in the child’s life.

Maternal gatekeeping, in which the mother decides how much a father may parent a child goes on both during marriage and after divorce, and Nielsen cites five different studies on that phenomenon. Maternal gatekeeping is perhaps explained by the fact that fully half of mothers believe themselves to be superior to men in parenting abilities and that a single mother or any random man can make as good a father to a child as the actual dad. Those notions of course have long been debunked.

In short, there’s little doubt about why there’s such a crisis of fatherlessness in this country, and it has little to do with the “deadbeat dad” or the uncaring man who sires children with little thought of being involved in their lives. All too many mothers are hell-bent on cutting fathers out of their children’s lives and the family court system is all too happy to do their bidding. This occurs despite the fact that our children are being damaged by those anti-dad mothers and that anti-dad system of courts and laws. They’re being damaged by mothers whom all and sundry assume to be model parents and by judges who barely draw breath but to tell us that they’re acting “in the best interests of children.”

Thanks to Yuri for the heads-up.

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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