Still at It: Westminster Conference Opposes Overnights for Dads

October 5, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

They’re back. No, actually they never left. Like a bad real estate purchase, we just can’t seem to ever be rid of them. By “them” of course I mean the small and apparently dwindling cadre of the anti-father crowd who are still (still!) attempting to convince themselves, if no one else, that fathers seeing their very young children overnight is a bad idea. It’s apparently not enough for these people that 110 social scientists around the world recently took the unprecedented step of signing on to a review of the up-to-date literature on the subject that roundly rejected their point of view. Nor is it enough for them that said paper, written by Dr. Richard Warshak, used language to debunk their claims that departed significantly from the academic norm. To call Warshak’s review excoriating would be putting it mildly.

Now, I won’t say that the people who still oppose overnights with Dad haven’t been chastened, only that they haven’t been educated. As this article demonstrates, their most recent meeting in the United Kingdom was by invitation only and kept closely under wraps (Researching Reform, 9/27/14).

Highly controversial, and embracing some of the best known names in child welfare, both famous and infamous, how could a conference so explicit, so sensitive in nature, have gone unnoticed by the public at large?…

So once again we re-ignite a sensitive debate, but we do so in order to highlight this latest development, a conference, which should have been aired prior to going forward and which should have allowed for a wider debate, even if that debate was painful and messy.

Those organizing the meeting were careful to give it no publicity at all, apparently so they could meet and share their views undaunted by anyone who might disagree with them. Of course, that fact alone casts a rather broad shadow over the doings at the meeting. After all, if you’re that afraid of opposing viewpoints, you might consider the possibility that your own isn’t very convincing.

Plus, echo chambers of the type described in the linked-to article usually have a detrimental effect on their participants. Face it, if you only listen to people who agree with you, your thinking quickly gets pretty lax. Generally, we all need to hear disparate voices in order to hone our thoughts, information, conclusions, etc. That’s pretty much a truism, but attendees at the Westminster conference seem to have ignored it in favor of the intellectual version of comfort food.

Into that cozy atmosphere marched U.S. neuropsychologist, Dr. Allan Schore.

Dr Schore said at the conference, that “…recent developmental neuroscience on the right brain and attachment now suggests negative impact of shared-time parenting arrangement following separation and parental overnights in first (and second) year, when brain doubles in size. Family Law policy about infants needs to incorporate this recent knowledge.”

Hmm. Alas, I’m no authority on brain chemistry, much less the development thereof in the early years of life. But I’m skeptical enough to have some questions for the good doctor. The first is, “Can we really accept your conclusion on its face?” That is, do we truly have rigorous science to the effect that, overnight visits with dad by children under the age of two cause impairment to the development of the right brain? Stated another way, are research findings such that all other possible causative factors have been excluded and only overnight visits are left to explain some developmental issue in the child’s right brain?

Second, even if the answer to all of the above is “yes,” so what? Assuming that overnights are not only a cause, but the only cause of whatever right brain issue Schore describes, is it a problem? Has Dr. Schore or anyone else conducted longitudinal studies of many children over many years and determined that the different development of their right brain as opposed to that of other children who didn’t overnight with Dad adversely affected them in some way? Schore of course understands that it’s quite a distance between some forms of brain physiology or even chemistry to individual behavior.

Again, I’m the furthest thing from an expert on the subject, but I know enough to know that. As but one obvious example, two people with the same neurotransmitter may behave entirely differently. Stated another way, based on the presence of said neurotransmitter, we might expect to see certain behavior,  but in one person we see that behavior while in another we don’t. Why? Well, one has receptors for that particular neurotransmitter in the part of the brain associated with the particular behavior while the other doesn’t. That’s something that, for example, explains differing male/female behavior in certain areas.

The point being that, just because we can identify a particular result in a particular area of the brain doesn’t mean there’s a problem. And again, that’s assuming Schore has in fact identified the sole cause of the right brain phenomenon he’s describing.

Third, isn’t the whole issue of behavior the important one? We can surely agree that different humans have brains that aren’t identical and yet function perfectly well individually and socially. Barring some physiological problem that neither Schore nor, to my knowledge, anyone else has mentioned, is there truly a detriment to the phenomenon to which Schore refers?

Speaking of behavior, that’s the bailiwick of social science and that social science is precisely what Dr. Warshak and 110 of his colleagues summarized in the review of the literature on overnights by very young children with their fathers. And it’s behavior that Schore is talking about when he refers to “right brain and attachment.” Attachment refers to the behavior of children in bonding with, in this case, their parents. Schore claims there’s neuroscience that “suggests” an impact on the behavior called attachment, so how is it that those 110 scientists from all around the world missed it? Somehow, according to Schore, children who overnight with Dad experience problems with attachment, but the numerous longitudinal studies conducted and vetted by all those social scientists simply failed to notice the fact, even though much of that research was aimed at exactly that. To this layperson, that seems like a dicey proposition.

Fourth, isn’t it true that that question, and many others, could have been addressed if the Westminster conference hadn’t gone to such trouble to exclude differing opinions? Vigorous, principled debate can be fun and, more important, highly informative. If Schore is confident of his conclusions, why not allow them to be addressed by those who may not agree? Why not take the opportunity to educate others about one’s findings. After all, that’s what scientists do. But at Westminster, they did the opposite.

Finally, what’s Schore’s information about any right brain attachment issues that might exist in kids who don’t overnight with their dads in the first years of life? Has he researched that? Has he compared the two sets of kids (those with and those without overnights in the first two years of life) and discovered that those with overnights have right-brain attachment issues and those without overnights do not? And what about a control group?

It’s by now well known that infants begin to form attachments to their parents in the very earliest weeks of life, developing the ability to distinguish one parent from the other at as early as eight weeks of age. But Schore is arguing that courts should exclude fathers from overnights at least until the age of two. What, if anything, does that do to the father-child dyad? Has he researched that or, in keeping with the attitudes of so many of the anti-dad crowd, does he simply view the father-child attachment as in some way inferior to the mother-child one?

Again, we’d all be more convinced if those who, against essentially the entire weight of social science, weren’t so secretive, so unwilling to have their ideas and opinions subjected to scrutiny by those who may not agree. It’s exactly the same point made by the always excellent Robert Whiston in his comment to the article.

This is the ‘woozle effect’ at work that Linda Nielsen writes about; a cadre repeating each other work and citations.

That’s a good way to maintain a steady flow of academic publications, but not very effective for swaying the opinions of the community of scientists. Still, I suppose it’s understandable. The last time Jennifer McIntosh exposed her ideas to the scientific community concerned with the issue of children’s well-being, the result was the intellectual equivalent of stepping in front of a speeding bus.

Thanks to Yuri for the heads-up.


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