Equal Parenting: Cause of Child Well-Being, or Correlation

This continues from yesterday my discussion of Dr. William Fabricius’ paper “Equal Parenting Time: The Case for a Legal Presumption,” that will be published in hard copy in October of this year in the Oxford Handbook of Children and the Law, edited by J.G. Dwyer and published by Oxford University Press.

Is there a causal effect of equal parenting on increased child well-being or are the 60+ studies finding better outcomes for children with equal parenting merely correlational?  Dr. Fabricius finds that equal parenting tends to cause those improved outcomes.

One of the arguments against causation is that those parents who chose an equal or near-equal parenting arrangement were simply predisposed in that direction.  Therefore, the only thing measured by the studies is the selection bias of those with shared parenting arrangements.  Fabricius disposes of that claim.

The first reason is that better fathers are not able to choose to have more parenting time.

Still the best study conducted of what parents want and what they receive from judges’ orders is the Maccoby and Mnookin study from 1992.  Its findings were corroborated by a study conducted by Fabricius and colleagues.

Maccoby and Mnookin reported that about a third of fathers wanted joint physical custody, and another third wanted primary physical custody. In Arizona, Fabricius and Hall found that similar proportions of college students reported that their fathers had wanted equal or nearly equal living arrangements, or to be their primary residential parent. Yet in both studies, children’s living arrangements were twice as likely to reflect the mothers’ than the fathers’ preferences.

Plus, as I’ve said many times, what parents agree to is heavily influenced by what they perceive a judge is likely to do.  If Dad’s lawyer tells him it’s not worth the money and heartache to try for equal parenting time, there’s a fair likelihood that he’ll do the sensible thing and accept less.  That and other factors mean that it’s not possible for selection bias to be at work.

The second reason that parenting time is likely to play a causal role in benefits to the father-child relationship is that there is a “dose-response” pattern, which means that even small increases in parenting time across the range from 0% to 50% are significantly associated with increases in father-child relationship security.

The chances that only children who would be responsive in a “dose-response” way to paternal parenting were the ones who were studied by the many researchers in various parts of the world who’ve found better outcomes for children in equal parenting arrangements are vanishingly small.  A dose-response effect strongly suggests causation.

The third reason is that the beneficial effects of shared parenting do not seem to be due to better, more cooperative parents agreeing between themselves to share parenting time.

Indeed, the children of parents who had equal parenting time more or less forced on them by a judge still were better off than those in sole or primary custody.

We examined the publicly available data from the Stanford Child Custody Study  and found that the great majority of parents with shared parenting had to accept it after mediation, custody evaluation, trial, or judicial imposition. Nevertheless, those with shared parenting time had the most well-adjusted children years later. In a recent study, we asked parents to report whether they had agreed about overnight parenting time when their children were 0 to 2 years of age, or whether they disagreed…  If the children had equal overnights with each parent by the time they were 2 years old, it did not matter whether their parents had agreed to it or not; the two groups had equally good relationships with their fathers as well as with their mothers, and better relationships than those who had had fewer overnights.

The final reason stems from studies of parents who relocate.  Sometimes custodial Mom moves away, depriving the child of much time with Dad.  Sometimes non-custodial Dad does so, resulting in the same thing.

[C]ompared to non-relocating families, relocation of more than an hour’s drive from the original family home was associated not only with long-term harm to children’s emotional security with parents and their emotional security about parent conflict, but also with more anxiety, depression, aggression, delinquency, involvement with the juvenile justice system, associations with delinquent peers, and drug use. These associations held after controlling for parent conflict, domestic violence, and mothers’ family income.

The important factor in those studies was that the child’s negative response could not have come about due to anxiety about being uprooted to a new home, new school, new peers, etc. by the move.  When Mom moved with the child, obviously, those effects could have been felt, but not when Dad moved without the child.  Then the child remained where he/she had always been and in Mom’s primary care.  Therefore, the negative outcomes were due to losing much time with Dad.  And those outcomes again were found in the children from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities.

In short, we have pretty a pretty firm empirical foundation for the proposition that equal parenting causes better children’s outcomes.

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