Shared Parenting Post-Divorce May in Young Children’s Best Interests
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Shared Parenting Post-Divorce May in Young Children’s Best Interests

by Melvin Cook

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There is a nice article posted on a child and family blog dated October 4, 2014 by Richard A. Warshak, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre in Dallas, Texas.

See https://childandfamilyblog.com/parents-divorce-regular-overnight-stays-dad-best-young-children/

(visited September 14, 2015).

Mr. Warshak reminds us that it has been a common assumption for as long as most of us can remember that children, especially very young children, do better after a divorce living almost exclusively with one parent. That parent is usually the mother.

However, Mr. Warshak states that his current research, which he claims has been vetted and endorsed by 110 mental health experts in 15 countries, shows that even very young children do best when both parents remain actively involved in both daytime and overnight care of the children following a divorce.

This is not really a very radical concept, when you think about it. After all, most people would agree that children thrive best in a stable relationship with both mother and father actively participating in their care. Why, then, would this change after a separation?

I would note that this research does not necessarily say anything about the respective roles of father and mother. Each clearly has a unique role in children’s lives. Even if a child’s mother is the primary nurturer and homemaker and the father is the primary breadwinner, both parents complement and help each other in these respective roles.

The author mentions that it is commonly agreed that fathers play a valuable role in providing hands-on care to children – including the mundane tasks of diapering, putting to bed, reading to and soothing at night, feeding, bathing and so forth. Yet, for some reason, when parents separate, there has been a persistent notion that fathers should make a clean break from the family while children live exclusively with mother.

According to the author, however, empirical research shows that in most situations where there are two loving and involved parents, even young children under the age of four benefit from shared hands-on parenting. He finds that it is best when both parents provide both daytime and overnight care for the children. Of course, there are some exceptions, such as in unfortunate situations of abuse or neglect. These tragic situations can occur even in intact families.

An interesting point made by the author is that the idea of post-divorce fathers occupying the role of “visitor” in children’s lives was initially reinforced by “attachment theory” as conceptualized by John Bowlby. According to this theory, the infant child forms enduring affectional ties with just one parent, usually the mother, which then serves as a template for all other relationships.

However, according to the Mr. Warshak, even Mr. Bowlby came to understand that children form multiple independent relationships at around the same time and that one does not necessarily serve as a template for all of the others.

In other words, the father’s relationship is not necessarily derivative of the mother’s relationship, or based on its “template.” Rather, it is an independent relationship of its own that forms around the same time. In my opinion, this does not in any way detract from the special bond that mothers form with infant children as a result of pregnancy, childbirth, and subsequent nurturing. It simply reflects the fact that both parents form an independent and often complementary bond with the child.

In my opinion, this idea of shared parenting should appeal even to traditionalists. It respects each parent’s unique role in the children’s lives.

I really like how the author puts it towards the end of the article. “If we value Dad reading Goodnight Moon to his toddler and soothing his fretful baby at 3 am while the parents are living together, why withdraw our support and deprive the child of these expressions of fatherly love just because the parents no longer live together, or just because the sun has gone down?”

It is certainly something worth thinking about.

This material should not be construed as legal advice for any particular fact situation, but is intended for general informational purposes only. For advice specific to any individual situation, an experienced attorney should be contacted.

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