October 22, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
It’s like reading the history of a defeated army retreating but fighting rear-guard actions along the way (Psychology Today, 10/10/18). I refer of course to Professor Edward Kruk’s description of the tactics used by anti-shared parenting advocates over the years as, one by one, their justifications for their opposition fell before the advance of science and sound reasoning. And now, they’ve come up against the impassable river, the unscalable mountain. They’re stuck, hemmed in on every side by the onslaught of scientific achievement.
According to Kruk, there’ve been three waves of justifications advanced by opposition forces against shared parenting. The first wave consisted of three smaller ones.
First, it was asserted that children have one primary attachment figure to whom they become bonded, almost always the mother, and that any period of separation from the primary attachment figure will damage children’s development and compromise their well-being.
The only problem with that was that it was wrong and coming to be known to be wrong at the very time anti-shared parenting advocates asserted it. More recent research shows no hierarchy of children’s attachments to father and mother.
A second line of argument was then put forward, stating that child development would be compromised when children move back and forth between two homes, “bounced around like a yo-yo,” with constant movement, two sets of home rules and different parenting styles.
No-nothing family lawyers opposed to shared parenting still make that argument today. It too is unsupported by empirical evidence. Indeed, as Kruk points out, children themselves never seem to complain about “living out of a suitcase,” seeming to prefer the contact they maintain with both parents to living in a single place.
Finally, a third argument was made that it is harmful to child development to disrupt the caregiving status quo, and that mothers should thus retain their role as the primary day-to-day caregivers of children.
Again, the empirical evidence contradicted the claim. As elsewhere, maintaining meaningful relationships with both parents far outweighs any harm occasioned by giving the kids time with Dad they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
So it was on to Wave Two.
[I]t was argued that shared parenting after divorce exacerbates parental conflict, and that children would be drawn into the conflict if shared care arrangements were imposed on families. Shared parenting, therefore, is only suitable for parents with little or no conflict and who get along well as co-parents.
What I’ve pointed out many times was true in this instance. Opponents of shared parenting never get around to mentioning what they’re arguing for, only what they’re arguing against. After all, if not shared parenting, then what? That “what” is the status quo, i.e. sole or primary maternal custody in the great majority of cases. What does that “winner-take-all” system do to parental conflict? It enhances it greatly, as anyone would expect. After all, when faced with the prospect of losing one’s children, fathers with the means to do so can be expected to fight. And when presented with the “silver bullet” (i.e. allegations of domestic violence or child abuse) with which to fight back, many mothers don’t leave it unfired.
[R]esearch demonstrated that children do better in shared care arrangements even if there is conflict between the parents, and that sustaining both relationships is a protective factor for children in high parental conflict situations. Not all conflict is bad for children.
Retreating still further, the anti-dad crowd tried another tack.
[I]n high-conflict families, shared parenting exposes victimized parents and children to family violence and child abuse, and a legal presumption of shared parenting will allow abusive parents to continue their reign of terror in families.
Unfortunately for them, that argument failed in two ways. First, every shared parenting bill ever filed has included an exception for child abuse or domestic violence. All anyone has to do is read them, but, when you oppose shared parenting and all the evidence is against you, you find yourself repeating outworn and long-debunked objections. Of course the principled thing to do would be to admit that the facts support shared parenting and therefore become a shared parenting advocate. But it seems principle isn’t these people’s long suit.
And of course, when we review actual divorce filings in which child custody is an issue, we find that even allegations of DV or child abuse are vanishingly rare, much less actual findings thereof. So why make child custody policy based on the few exceptions rather than the rule? The anti-dad crowd never gets around to answering that one.
The last-ditch defense of sole/primary maternal custody was actually just ridiculous. It claims that, however beneficial shared care may be, we shouldn’t establish a legal presumption of it because that would tie judges’ hands. Unmentioned was the fact that, of all the existing judicial presumptions, no one ever makes such an argument against them. Unmentioned as well is the fact that a presumption in the law is just that, i.e. a position taken that requires opponents of the position to produce evidence to rebut it. If they do so, the presumption disappears. In short, the judge’s hands aren’t tied; the presumption is simply the obligation of the person objecting to what usually benefits kids to show why it shouldn’t be used in the case at bar.
Without a legal presumption, judges make decisions based on idiosyncratic biases, leading to inconsistency and unpredictability in their judgments.
Indeed they do, as many studies of judicial attitudes adequately demonstrate.
It may be asked, then, after 40 years of debate, whether we have now reached a tipping point, when researchers can conclude with confidence that the best interests of children are commensurate with a legal presumption of shared parenting responsibility after divorce. Summarizing the state of current research in two recent special issues on shared parenting in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage and the Journal of Child Custody, leading divorce scholar Sanford Braver asserts, “To my mind, we’re over the hump. We’ve reached the watershed. On the basis of this evidence, social scientists can now cautiously recommend presumptive shared parenting to policymakers…shared parenting has enough evidence [that] the burden of proof should now fall to those who oppose it rather than those who promote it.”
About that, I must disagree. Caution is admirable in a scientist and I highly respect the intellectual scruples expressed by Dr. Braver. When assessing the scientific evidence for or against shared parenting, one must always be cautious and considered.
But we have now come to a time at which academic caution has done what was needed. We now have to demand that the anti-shared parenting advocates put their cards on the table. It is time they stopped trying to undermine the science that supports shared parenting and provide us with the science that supports the only two alternatives – sole and primary parenting. And in doing so, they must adhere to the same strict standards they’ve always demanded of the science they invariably seek to discredit.
Of course they’ve already shown their hand, and it’s a loser. They have nothing with which to support their claim that sole/primary parenting is better for kids than shared parenting.
Their emperor is naked. There is no longer any reason to be cautious about saying so.