Focus on the Family
SHARED PARENTING / JOINT PHYSICAL CUSTODY
Too many children and adults today are experiencing the death of their families through divorce. As families seek to recover from this very difficult situation, a number of policies have been proposed to help divorced mothers and fathers do best by their children. Shared parenting or joint physical custody is just one of these proposals.
On its face, shared parenting or joint residential custody ‑‑ defined as an arrangement in which the child resides with each parent equal or nearly equal amounts of time ‑‑ seems like a good idea in that it involves both the mother and father in the life of the child. But it also means the child shuttles back and forth between two homes. Given this fact, Focus on the Family has serious concerns about this proposal because of the way it works itself out in the real life of children.
We acknowledge that the decisions required by divorce are often extremely difficult, particularly when children are involved. Unfortunately, there are no easy or perfect answers. Our intent in communicating the following information is not to imply that either parent's role is more important or valuable. Focus on the Family strongly believes and is established on the ideal that children do best when both mother and father are actively and lovingly involved in the life of their child. This is generally true for post‑divorce families as well and children of divorce should have ample access to both mother and father. Given this, it is important to explain that our concern with shared parenting policies Is centered in two important family qualities critical to healthy child development: the significance of the parents' marriage in the life of the child and the child's need for routine and stability. And the loss of these two things is what makes the divorce process far more harmful to children than most child psychologists ever imagined. And shared parenting / joint custody situations do little to help the child overcome these problems and can even exacerbate them.
Let's look at these two issues more carefully and see how these proposals impact post‑divorce child adjustment.
1) Dr. Judith Wallerstein has studied the effects of divorce upon children for three decades and is one of the world's foremost authorities on divorce's impact upon children. She says one of the most striking things she found in all her study was that .1 children identify not only with their mother and father as separate individuals, but with the relationship between them."1 Children see mother and father as permanently attached beings that belong together. This is why young children often assume mom and dad grow up together like brother and sister. Divorce confuses all this. Wallerstein explains, "mothers and fathers who share beds with different people under different roofs are not the same as mothers and fathers living under the same roof.”2 When parents divorce, it shatters the child's fundamental understanding of their parents and it marks the end of their family, as they understand it. This is at the root of why so many children tell Wallerstein it was if their childhood ended the day their parents divorced. The rest of life is spent in recovery.
Kids identify with the relationship between the parents and not the living arrangements. This is why shared parenting arrangements do little to aid children's divorce experience. Shared parenting living arrangements are created more for the sake of the parents.
2) Divorce destroys the child's sense of routine, order and normalcy, and shared parenting situations seldom help calm the storm. Shuttling between two homes in a shared parenting situation
1 Glenn T. Stanton, 'The Social Experiment That Failed," Chfistianity Today, February 5, 2001, p. 74. 2
is usually not conducive to their order and stability. And life only becomes increasingly complicated as children grow, and they crave a secure and stable situation at home that will serve as a safe haven during their formative years.
These are the two points that regularly come up in the research on shared parenting and joint residential custody.
A survey of these findings follows:
Based on her 30 plus years of research and experience with children of divorce, Dr. Wallerstein explains:
Joint custody arrangements that involve a child going back and forth at frequent intervals are particularly harmful to children in a high‑conflict family. ...The research findings on how seriously troubled these children are and how quickly their adjustment deteriorates are very powerful. ...However, the same arrangement might be very beneficial for a child of the same age in similar circumstances whose parents get along well. The bottom line that our studies show is that the legal form of custody is not what matters for the child's welfare.
Comparing children in joint physical custody with those raised in sole custody homes shows that the amount of time a child spends with each parent is unrelated to how well that child copes with life in the family, at school, or any other measure of social and psychological adjustment.
She concludes that what is important is "parents giving priority to the child's changing capacity and need for uniform routines.”3 This is because children relate largely to the relationship between the parents because they fundamentally understand their parents as a unit that go together. Once the relationship has been broken, exterior efforts to create a normal, shared home life typically fail to help the child. What matters is the relationship the child has with both parents and the parents have with each other.
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Additionally, in her latest book What About the Kids?, Wallerstein explains how important the parent/child and parent/parent relationships are, and how they are independent of living arrangement:
There is no scientific evidence that the general psychological adjustment of children is related to any particular form of custody. ...Rather the psychological health of the child and of both of the parents, the quality of the child's relationship with each parent, and the relationship between the parents are the key factors in the child's emotional and social adjustment after divorce.4
Wallerstein finds that children who thrive in joint custody are those who have some very specific criteria:
Both parents get along very well and cooperate nicely.
The two households are in the same neighborhood where the child can keep the same school, the same routines, friends and they can ride their bikes back and forth between homes, not needing to rely on parents for the residential transfer.
On the negative, she finds joint custody is burdensome for other children. They feel disorganized and scattered with their toys, clothes and things spread between two households.
Wallerstein speaks of some young children, who after returning from dad's house, go around mom's house touching all the familiar objects ‑ their bed, the dresser, their toys ‑ just to make sure they are real. They feared their home would have disappeared while they were gone. She says teachers can often tell when older children have made the residential shift because they have a hard time settling down, requiring a day or two to settle into a new routine and be able to concentrate. This results in the dangers of lost homework and falling behind the other students.
Wallerstein reports that "very young children often feel they're being sent from one home to another because thev've been nauqhtv."*5 She adds, "I was
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surprised to find that some children internalized the constant back and forth into their personalities and literally have a hard time dealing with a stable environment."6
So Wallerstein concludes that joint custody can work out well for children, but only with a very strict criteria. Most times, it has very little benefit for children because the fundamental problem is rooted, not in issues of residence, but in the fact that the relationship with mom and dad has forever changed.
Other studies support Wallersteln's conclusion that custody arrangements don't make a significant difference in child outcomes. The Joumal of Marriage and the Family reported in 2000 that studies "suggest that it is not the amount of time that nonresident fathers spend with their children but how they interact with their children that is important." What is more, they report, "Frequent contact [between divorced parents] also provides opportunities for parents to quarrel. Because conflict is harmful to children, conflict between parents may cancel, even reverse, any benefits J
associated with frequent visitation.
In another study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology:
Despite having more access to both parents,' joint custody children show neither less disturbance or better social and emotional adjustment after divorce than sole custody children. The finding that custody type is not predictive of child outcome is consistent with recent reports of no difference found in behavioral adjustment between children living in joint physical custody or joint legal custody and children living in sole custody arrangements.8
One major study praised by shared‑parenting proponents as supporting the proposal is Robert Bauserman's review of the published literature on
Wallerstein, 2003, p. 198. William Marsiglio, Paul Amato, Randal Day, and Michael Lamb, *Scholarship on Fatherhood In the 1990s and Beyond," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62 (2000) 1173‑1191. 8 Marsha Kline, Jeanne Tschann, Janet Johnston, and Judith Wallersteln, "Children's Adjustment In Joint and Sole Physical Custody Families," Developmental Psychology, 25 (1989) 430438.
shared parenting.9 There are a number of problems with this study.
In this study, Bauserman analyzed 33 studies that compare joint physical custody or joint legal custody with sole custody settings. However, 22 of these studies were unpublished, non‑peer reviewed, academic dissertations from graduate or postgraduate students. Also, Bauserman commits a major flaw by lumping two custody categories together as one. He makes no distinction between children in joint legal custody (where both parents hold legal, but not necessarily residential or physical custody) and children in joint physical custody (where children share equal time in two homes). He then compares that merged group with children in sole legal and physical custody.
This lack of distinction means that children spending as little as 25% of their time living with one parent were counted as joint‑physical custody when in reality this time split more closely proximates sole‑custody arrangements.10 Therefore, he confuses any benefits of sole custody with apparent benefits of joint physical custody.
The second problem is with Bauserman himself as a researcher. He is one of the co‑authors of a very disturbing, pro‑pedophilia study published in 1998 in the journal Psychological Bulletin. His article advocated that the term "child sexual abuse" should be changed to the value neutral "adult‑child sex" or "age‑discrepant sexual relationships" because, according to the study, some boys can actually benefit from having sex with men. Another study, published by Bauserman in 2001, defends pedophilia by stating that boys between ages 12‑17 who had been molested by men had as much selfesteem and positive sexual identity as boys who were not molested. Bauserman has also been published in Paidika: The Joumal of Paedophilia. Mark Chaffin, editor of the journal Child Maltreatment warns that Bauserman and his coauthors in these pro‑pedophilia articles "used scientific data to stake an advocacy position ... that went well beyond the data and could lead to it being misused by people for their own purposes.""
Can Bauserman be seen as a champion of what's good for children?
* Robert Bausennan, "Child Adjustment In Joint‑Custody Versus Sole‑Custody Arrangements: A Meta‑Analytic Review," Journal of Family Psychology, 16 (2002) 91‑102. 10 Bauserman, 2002, p. 93. 11 Karla Dial, 'Molesters, Inc." Citizen Magazine, March 2002, 26‑28.
Another source cited by shared parenting proponents is Eleanor Maccoby and Robert Mnookin's book Dividing the Child: Social and Legal Dilemmas of Custody (Harvard University Press, 1992). Maccoby and Mnookin are supportive of shared parenting in the ideal, but they do point out some significant issues with the way the proposal is worked out.
Due to the emotional and relational volatility in postdivorce family life, they observe:
"...the coparental relationship between divorced parents is something that needs to be constructed, not something that can simply be carried over from preseparation patterns. It takes time and effort on the part of both parents to arrange their lives in such a way that the children can spend time in both parental households."12
"Children derive real benefits -‑ psychological, social and economic -- when divorced parents can have cooperative coparenting relationships. With conflicted coparental relationships, on the other hand, children are more likely to be caught in the middle with real adverse effects on the child.13
This mixed news Is put into a different perspective given that Maccoby and Mnookin found:
"Only a minority of our families – about 30 percent ‑ were able to establish cooperative coparenting relationships. Spousal disengagement, which essentially involved parallel parenting with little communication, had become the most common pattern, while about a quarter of our families remained conflicted at the end of three and half years.14
12 Eleanor Maccoby and Robert Mnookin, Dividing the Child. Sochil and Legal Dilemmas of Custody (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 276. 13 Maccoby and Mnookin, 1992, p. 277. 14 Maccoby and Mnookin, 1992, p. 277.
Shared parenting or joint physical custody proposals can tend to turn parents into time accountants, more concerned about what is fair for them, rather than what is best for the child. Focus on the Family resists legislation or proposals favoring shared parenting or joint physical custody because the requirements for them to work well for children ‑ peaceful, cooperative parents who live near one another ‑ are a very rare thing. Most divorces are created over the fact that parents cannot cooperate and work peaceably together.
What is more, if parents can be so cooperative to make shared parenting work, it doesn't seem these parents would need the courts or legislation to direct them in this way. They could simply work it out themselves if it was their desire to do so. If it is not their desire, it is not likely to work well for the child. As a result, legislation favoring shared parenting would most likely force children into tumultuous situations with uncooperative, conflicted parents. We know this can be deeply harmful to children.