The Shared Parenting Debate
Usually the natural parents are the acknowledged custodians of their children, in the state of Maryland. The law is unbiased, and neither the mother or father are favored. The courts consider the "best interest" of the child when deciding on child custody and visitation. The "best interest" of the child standard looks at certain factors to determine what is best for the child (or children). Sometimes, the parents can agree on custody, or have come to some sort of agreement on custody arrangements and are able to create a Parenting Agreement. If they cannot agree about who should have custody, the court will grant custody, either sole custody, to one of the parents, or joint custody, shared between the parents. There are various types of custody that go more into detail, but they are not discussed here. The most favored ideal living arrangement for majority of children after a divorce is shared between the parents, known as ‘shared parenting,’ but has not legislative backing like more traditional sole custody arrangements.
What is Shared Parenting?
You will frequently see the terms, ‘shared parenting’ and ‘joint custody’ used interchangeably. Exact definitions vary, but to be clear, in a true joint custody situation, both parents have equal parenting time, in a 50/50 split. This is difficult in the best of times for both children and parents in terms of scheduling and logistics. Shared parenting, however, does not require a 50/50 split in parenting time. While more equal parenting time is common in these cases, the primary ‘sharing’ referred to in shared parenting arrangements is the right to share equally in decisions in raising the child (or children), where, ideally, all parental responsibilities are collaborative.
Arguments Against Shared Parenting
There is a strong public support, along with empirical evidence in favor, for shared parenting, according to a new article in Psychology Today, written by Dr. Edward Kruk. However, he states, “three distinct arguments were made to discredit the concept.” These arguments have prevented legislative reform for shared parenting from being established. In Dr. Kruk’s recent article in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, he counters these “waves” of arguments.
The First Wave
The argument here proclaimed that children only become bonded to and have one primary attachment figure. This is almost always the mother. This line of thinking states that, “any period of separation from the primary attachment figure will damage children’s development and compromise their well-being.”
The Second Wave
The second argument, this time on childhood development, stated that shared parenting could be detrimental to child development when children lose stability in their lives by moving back and forth between two homes and, presumably, two different home rules and parenting styles.
The Second Wave, 2.0
Those from this wave argued that by incorporating shared parenting, this exacerbates the parental conflict, leading to children being used in the conflict. It suggested that shared parenting could only work in an environment where parents already get along well as co—parents, not in cases of existing parental conflict.
The Second Wave, 3.0
In response to interventions suggested to decrease parental conflict, a critique of shared parenting came up. This side argued that imposing shared parenting on victims of domestic violence and child abuse would allow abusive parents to continue to abuse their victims.
The Third Wave
Finally, supporters of more traditional sole custody arrangements made a third argument, stating that disrupting the caregiving status quo harms childhood development, suggesting that mothers should continue their primary caregiving role of the children. Since the child has only ever seen the mother as their caregiver, and not seen the father in this role, this should continue, or risk harming childhood development.
The First Wave: Yet, while this attachment theory argument was being given, attachment theory was being revised, with the updated attachment theory now highlighting the fact that children typically formed primary attachments to both parents, with these attachments being of equal importance for the children. Not only that, but children will resolutely retain these attachments in changing events, such as in the case of their parents divorcing.
The Second Wave: In the case of childhood development being affected by destabilization due to constant movement and two households with differing parenting styles and rules, research found “that children themselves generally did not report such problems.” Additionally, in retaining bonds and in receiving parenting time from both parents, children were protected from any adverse outcomes that accompany divorce. In fact, due to the child developing an attachment to both their parents, longer separations from either of their parents “were found to be detrimental to child development,” leading to some of those adverse outcomes.
The Second Wave, 2.0: As for shared parenting only working for two who were amicable in co-parenting, it is actually this viewpoint of ‘an adversarial “winner-take-all” approach to child custody’ that exacerbates the parental conflict. Ideally, with parents that have parental conflict, they want to resolve said conflict and will choose interventions such as Family Mediation and Co-parenting Education Seminars, which were found to be most protective of child well-being. With the child developing attachments to both parents prior to the divorce, and then the divorce occurring, the child is still bonded to both parents, and sustaining the attachment—the relationship with both parents—can provide a “protective factor for children in high parental conflict situations.”
The Second Wave, 3.0: This argument misrepresented the words of those in support of shared parenting. There was a legal presumption that imposing shared parenting on families would expose victimized parents and children to continued acts of violence and abuse, which proponents of shared parenting made clear would not happen, and actually stated that shared parenting should always be rebuttable in cases of domestic violence and abuse. If violence and abuse has occurred and does occur, then shared parenting is obviously invalidated.
The Third Wave: Research on maintaining the caregiver status quo, or the roles of mother as caregiver and father as supporter, suggests that there is not a risk to childhood development, as more and more households have made it the norm to start sharing care of children in two-parent households.
Conclusively, disrupting shared parenting has been found to actually destabilize children’s lives, and some of those that spend time arguing against it even acknowledge the possibility of benefits for most children and families that have experienced divorce, just not for everyone. They do insist on being wary of the use of presumptions in family law, arguing that the best interest of the child is different in every case. They want to make sure that judges maintain their decision-making authority in regards to custody and visitation. Arguably, in the last forty years of this debate, shared parenting has defended its position and demonstrated enough evidence that may optimistically be used in recommending shared parenting to policymakers, and bring forth meaningful legislative reform for Family Law in custody and visitation for children of divorce. It might be time for the other side to deal with explaining their opposition better.
For more information on this topic, please review the article, 'Countering Arguments Against Shared Parenting in Family Law,' on Psychology Today, from Dr. Edward Kruk, seen here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/co-parenting-after-divorce/201810/countering-arguments-against-shared-parenting-in-family-law