Shared Residential Custody: Review of the Research (Part II of II)

 BY DR. LINDA NIELSEN

CHARACTERISTICS OF SHARED

PARENTING FATHERS

An issue raised in regard to shared parenting is

that these fathers are somehow “better” than other

fathers to begin with. If this is true, then whatever

benefi ts are associated with shared parenting

might have accrued even if these children had

lived mainly with their mothers. To my knowledge,

no study has compared the quality of father-child

relationships before and after divorce to the type of

parenting plan the parents chose. However, there

are at least three reasons not to assume that the

majority of shared parenting fathers are far “better”

parents than fathers who only see their children

every other weekend.

First, many “weekend” fathers say they wanted

shared residential custody. For some, their work

schedules or their low incomes made it unfeasible

for their children to live with them. For others,

they could not afford or did not believe that

they could win a legal battle for shared parenting.

Consequently, these fathers yielded to the mothers’

wishes that the children live with her (70–72). In the

Stanford Custody project, for example, only 30% of

the fathers who wanted joint residential custody

were awarded it (62). And, according to 320 college

students who lived with their mothers after their

parents’ divorce, half of their fathers had wanted

equal parenting time (34). We have no reliable way

of determining how many fathers have wanted, but

were denied or never pursued, shared residential

custody. Whether or not a father has a shared parenting

plan is not the most reliable way to assess

how much he may have wanted to share the parenting,

however.

It is not the aim of this article to assess how

accurate fathers are in their assumptions about

bias against them in family court. Some evidence

suggests that the fathers might be wrong. For

example, in a survey of 345 divorcing couples in

North Carolina, 20% of the fathers were awarded

shared parenting by a judge, versus only 5% who

Shared Residential Custody:

Review of the Research (Part II of II)

DR. LINDA NIELSEN

Linda Nielsen, Ed.D. is a professor of Adolescent

and Educational Psychology at Wake Forest University

in Winston Salem North Carolina. Her areas of expertise

are father-daughter relationships and shared parenting

after divorce. Her work on fathers and daughters, with

an emphasis on divorced fathers, has been featured on

PBS, NPR and in numerous magazines and newspapers

internationally. In addition to numerous journal articles,

she has written four books on father-daughter relationships

and a college textbook on adolescent psychology.

A member of the Association of Family and Conciliation

Courts and the Southeastern Psychological Association,

she has made numerous presentations on shared parenting

and divorced fathers and has served as an expert

witness on shared parenting research. More information

about her work is available on her website www.wfu.

edu/~nielsen or through email nielsen@wfu.edu.

124 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW

had reached their shared parenting agreement with

a mediator and 10% with a lawyer (73). On the other

hand, lawyers and judges in several surveys have

stated that there is a bias against fathers in the family

courts (74–78). Likewise, in a recent study of

367 people who had been summoned for jury duty,

nearly 70% said that children should live equal

time with each parent. However, only 28% believed

that a judge would make that decision (79). The

important point is that a father who believes that a

judge or his state’s custody laws are biased against

fathers is less likely to try to negotiate a shared parenting

agreement than a father who believes that

there is no bias. This situation is acknowledged in

the legal profession as “bargaining in the shadow

of the law” – meaning that even though only 10%

of divorced couples have their case decided by a

judge, 100% of them are nonetheless infl uenced by

their state’s custody laws in regard to shared residential

parenting (80). Given this circumstance, it is

overly simplistic to assume that those fathers who

have a shared residential parenting agreement are

always more dedicated or somehow “superior” to

fathers whose children live with their mother.

OUTCOMES FOR CHILDREN: ACADEMIC,

BEHAVIORAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, PHYSICAL

How well do most children fare in shared parenting

families? Compared to children who live

with their mother, are they signifi cantly better or

worse off on measures of academic, social, psychological

or physical well-being? The twenty fi ve

studies presented in Tables 1 and 2 address these

questions.

Beginning with the oldest studies, the most methodologically

impressive is the Stanford Custody

Project, where data were collected over a four year

period (1984–1988) from 1100 divorced families with

1386 children. Four years after the divorce, the dual

residence adolescents were better off academically,

emotionally, and psychologically than the sole residence

children. These children were less likely to

be stressed by feeling the need to take care of their

mother. On the other hand, when their parents were

not getting along well, these teenagers were more

likely than those in sole residence to feel caught in

the middle of the disagreements. Fortunately, their

parents were not more likely than other divorced

parents to drag them into their confl icts. Moreover,

having a closer relationship with both parents generally

offset the negative impact of the parents’ confl

icts. Children in both types of families were more

stressed, anxious, and depressed when there were

large discrepancies in their parents’ parenting styles.

But the impact was the worst on the children who

rarely got to spend time with their father, and not on

those in dual residence. What is especially noteworthy

about this longitudinal study is that even after

controlling for parents’ educations, incomes, and

levels of confl ict, the shared residential children had

the better outcomes (47;62).

Overnight time provides a more natural

familial setting.

A number of smaller studies conducted at

around the same time as the Stanford Study also

found equal or better outcomes for children in

shared parenting families. Four years after their

parents divorce, the 11 children in dual residence

were not signifi cantly different from the 89 children

in dual residence in regard to stress, confusion, or

insecurity (54). In a larger study, three years after

the divorce, the 62 dual residence children were

less depressed, stressed, and agitated than the 459

children in sole residence. What is especially noteworthy

is that all of these children had similar

scores on these measures at the time their parents

divorced (55). In a much smaller study by the same

researchers, there were no differences on these

measures between the nine children in dual residence

and the 144 children in maternal or paternal

residence. Given the very small number of shared

parenting families, it is not surprising that family

income, confl ict, and domestic violence accounted

for half of the differences in children’s well-being

Table 1 Dual Residence Families:

Changes in Parenting Plans over Time

Years Separated Unchanged

Brotsky 1.5 80%

Cashmore 2–4 55%

Kaspiew 3–4 70%

Kline 2 80%

Lodge 2–3 67%

Maccoby 3.5 50%

McIntosh 4 65%

Melli 3 90%

SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART II OF II) 125

in all families. In a San Francisco study where parents

were receiving free counseling for their ongoing

confl icts, the children in the 26 dual residence

families were better off in regard to stress, anxiety,

behavioral problems, and adjustment to moving

between homes than the children in the 13 sole

residence families. It is important to note that the

children whose parents needed the most counseling

initially to make shared parenting work ended

up as well off as children whose parents initially

were getting along fairly well (53). Similarly in a

Canadian study, 85% of the shared parenting couples

said that they felt close to their children and

that the children had adapted well to living in two

homes (52).

SIMILAR CONCLUSIONS IN MOST

AMERICAN STUDIES

More recent American studies reach similar

conclusions. In the Wisconsin study with

Table 2 Outcomes for Children

Shared Residence (35–50% Overnight time Share) or Sole Residence

Shared/Sole

Cognitive

Academic

Psychological &

Emotional

Delinquency

Drug/

Alcohol

Aggression

Physical

Health

Relationship

with

Parents

Bjarnason 2200 25,578 better better

Breivik 41 409 equal better better

Brotsky 26 13 better better

Buchannan 97 150 better better better better better

Cashmore

*CSA 440 148 better better better

* LSAC 84 473 better better better

Campana 207 272 better better

Fabricius 30 201 better

Fabricius 337 686 better

Fabricius 130 136 better better

Frank 16 90 better

Jablonska 443 2920 better

Janning 5 17 better

Kaspiew* 645 7118 better better

Kline 35 58 better equal better

Lee 20 39 better

Lodge 105 518 equal equal better

Luepnitz* 11 89 equal equal

Melli* 597 600 better better

McIntosh # 17-70 14-624 mixed mixed equal

McIntosh 42 44 better equal better

Neoh 27 37 better

Pearson* 62 459 better better

* 9 83 equal equal

Spruijt 135 350 better

* number of families, not number of children

# The number of children measured on each variable varied considerably

126 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW

590 shared parenting families, these children were less

depressed, had fewer health problems and stressrelated

illnesses, and were more satisfi ed with

their living arrangement than the children in the

590 sole residence families (Melli & Brown, 2008).

The children were 30% less likely to have been left

with babysitters or in daycare. Nearly 90% of their

fathers attended school events, as compared to only

60% of the other fathers. Almost 60% of the mothers

said that the fathers were very involved in making

everyday decisions about their children’s lives.

In fact, 13% of the mothers wished that the fathers

were less involved. Likewise, 80 college students

from shared parenting families had fewer health

problems and fewer stress-related illnesses than the

320 students who had lived in sole residence (81).

For middle and high school students, children were

less depressed, less aggressive, and had higher selfesteem

when their divorced parents had an authoritative

rather than a permissive parenting style. But,

because the 207 children in shared residence were

more likely than the 272 in sole residence to have

two authoritative parents, their outcomes were better

(82). With younger children aged six to ten, the

20 children in shared parenting families were less

aggressive and had fewer behavioral problems

than the 39 children sole residence (83). In a very

small convenience study with only eleven elementary

school children in shared parenting families,

the parents and the children agreed that making

friends and maintaining their contact with friends

was not a problem even though the parents’ homes

were in different neighborhoods (84).

International Studies

International studies have also found children

in shared parenting families doing equally as well

or better than other children of divorce. In a large

Swedish study, the 443 children in shared parenting

families had more close friends and had fewer

problems making friends. They were no more

likely than the 2920 children in sole residence to

be aggressive, violent, or abuse drugs and alcohol

(85). A Norwegian study also found that

41 shared parenting adolescents were no more

likely to drink or use drugs than the 409 in sole

residence. However, they were less likely to smoke,

to be depressed, to engage in antisocial behavior, and

to have low self esteem (86). In a small Norwegian

study where all 15 adolescents had lived in dual

residence from three to ten years, all but one was

satisfi ed with shared parenting – mainly because

it enabled them to maintain close relationships

with both parents (87). Likewise, in a Dutch study

with 135 adolescents in shared parenting, the girls

were less depressed, less fearful, and less aggressive

that the daughters in the 250 sole residence

families (5).

Because Australia revised its custody laws in

2006 in ways that were more favorable to shared

residential custody, this research has attracted

considerable attention. The largest is a random

national survey of 645 dual residence parents and

7118 sole residence parents one to two years after

separation (57). Despite the fact that the shared parenting

couples were just as likely as others to report

domestic violence before their separation, there

was no evidence to suggest that this had any more

negative effect on the dual residence children than

those living in sole residence. Even after accounting

for parents’ levels of education and violence, the

shared parenting children had marginally better

outcomes on the behavioral and emotional measures

than those in sole residence. As expected,

regardless of their living arrangement, children

whose parents had a history of violence had more

behavioral and emotional problems.

Daughters were more than 2.2 times as likely

to have diffi culty talking with their fathers.

The other large Australian government report

presents data from two separate studies (59). The

fi rst was a longitudinal study of 84 dual residence

and 473 sole residence families with children who

were fi rst assessed at ages four to fi ve and again

two years later – the Longitudinal Study of Australian

Children (LSAC) survey. The second was a survey

of 440 parents with dual residence and 419 with

sole residence (CSA). In the CSA survey, according

to the fathers, the children in shared care were

doing better socially, emotionally, and academically.

According to the mothers, the children were

no better or no worse in shared care. In the LSAC

study, according to teachers’ reports, at the end of

the two year period, the shared care children had

fewer peer problems, fewer academic diffi culties,

and less hyperactive behavior than those in sole

residence. Even though there was too much variation

in scores within each group to achieve statistically

signifi cant differences, the shared care

children had higher scores on socio-emotional and

SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART II OF II) 127

language development. Even though violence, family

income, and parents’ educational levels were

more strongly correlated with children’s outcomes

than was the parenting plan, the authors conclude

that, “[o]verall this research paints a positive picture

of shared care both in terms of parental satisfaction

and children’s wellbeing.”

These conclusions are confi rmed in several

smaller Australian studies. Comparing 105 adolescents

living in shared care, 398 living with their

mother and 120 living with their father, the shared

care children had the best relationships with both

parents, their stepparents, and their grandparents

two years after their parents’ separation (58).

Interestingly, even though the shared care parents

reported being no more cooperative than the other

divorced parents, their children reported them as

getting along better than did the children living

with the mother or their father. The shared care

children were just as well adjusted socially and

academically as the other children, but they were

much more likely than the children who lived with

their mothers to confi de in their fathers (80% versus

45%) and to say they had a close relationship with

him (97% versus 65%). In small study with 27 children

in shared residence, 37 in maternal residence

and 24 in intact families, the children in sole residence

were signifi cantly more hyperactive than the

others. All children’s stress levels were in the normal

range, although those in shared parenting had

somewhat higher scores. The children were equally

satisfi ed in shared or sole residency. But the parents

in the shared care families were more satisfi ed and

less stressed (88).

The largest, most recent and most internationally

representative study further confi rms the benefi

ts associated with shared parenting (89;90). Data

were gathered from 36 Western countries from

nearly 200,000 children: 148,177 in intact, 25,578

in single mother, 3,125 in single father, 11,705 in

mother/stepfather, 1,561 in father/stepmother,

and 2,206 in shared parenting families. The children

were 11, 13, and 15 years olds who were in

the World Health Organization’s 2005/2006 nationally

representative data base. The shared parenting

children were the least likely to say they had a

“diffi cult” or “very diffi cult” time talking to their

fathers about things that really bothered them

(29%) than the other children, including the children

in intact families (32%). As Table 3 illustrates,

children living with their single mother or with

their mother and stepfather had the most diffi –

culty communicating with their fathers (42% and

43% respectively). When asking how satisfi ed they

were with their lives, the children in intact families

were the most content. As Table 4 illustrates, the

shared parenting children were more satisfi ed with

their lives than the children in all other families,

except intact families. Even when the children’s

perceptions of their families’ fi nancial situations

were factored in, the children with separated parents

were still less satisfi ed than those with married

parents – and the shared parenting children

were still the most satisfi ed.

Overall then, children in shared parenting families

are better off in terms of academic, psychological,

emotional, and social well-being, as well

as their physical health. But are there relationships

with their fathers any more meaningful or

any closer and more enduring than those children

who live with their mother and see their fathers

periodically?

OUTCOMES FOR CHILDREN:

RELATIONSHIPS WITH PARENTS

As previously discussed, nonresidential fathering

time is closely related to the quality and the

endurance of the father-child relationship. Given

this correlation, fathers and children in shared parenting

families should be expected to have better

relationships than those who only see each other a

few days a month. But do they? Is shared parenting

Table 3 Shared Physical Custody:

Children in 36 Western Countries

Family Type

Percent of Children Who

Find It Diffi cult Very

Diffi cult to Talk to their

Father About Things that

Really Bother Them

Children

Ages 11,

13 & 15

Mother &

stepfather 43% 11,705

Single mother 42% 25,578

Father &

stepmother 39% 1,561

Single father 33% 3,125

Intact families 32% 148,177

Shared physical

custody 29% 2,206

Bjarnason, T. et al (2012). Joint physical custody and

communication with parents: A cross national study of children

in 36 western countries. Children & Society, 26. 51–62.

128 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW

correlated with stronger or more enduring bonds

between fathers and children?

To begin, it is worth noting that even when the

children live with their mother, spending overnight

time in their father’s home is associated with closer

relationships. For 60 adolescents, those who spent

overnights at their father’s home had a closer relationship

with him than those who only saw him

during the day. This held true even when the overall

amount of time they spent together was equal

and regardless of the amount of confl ict between

the parents. Apparently, overnight time provides a

more natural, familial setting where children and

fathers can relate in more meaningful, more relaxed

ways. Then too, this kind of time together may help

adolescents and their fathers experience and appreciate

their bond in more powerful ways (29).

Amount of Time Together

But are the number of days spent living with

their father related to the quality of their relationship

years after their parents’ divorce? Is their

relationship any better if they spent more than

a couple of weekends a month together and are

greater amounts of time associated with better relationships?

In answering this question, the most

methodologically sophisticated study is based on

1030 young adults whose parents divorced before

they were sixteen (91). Nearly 400 of them had

lived in shared parenting families. The number

of days they lived with their fathers each month

and the present quality of their relationship was

highly correlated. The more days they had lived

together each month, the better their relationship.

The researchers also addressed the complicated

question: was spending time together associated

with any better relationship for those who did not

have a particularly good one? In other words, for

the worst relationships, was spending more time

together still associated with a higher rating? To

answer this question, the researchers separately

analyzed data for the top 20% with the highest ratings

and the 20% with the lowest ratings. In both

groups, spending more time together was still

associated with higher quality relationships. Those

who lived together more of the time, had the better

relationships – especially those who had lived

together 35% to 50% of the time. Beyond 50% time,

the quality of relationships was not highly correlated

with time.

Many other recent studies confi rm these results.

For 400 university students, almost all (93%) of the

80 students who had lived in dual residence families

said that this had been the best parenting plan

for them, as compared to only 30% of the other students.

Nearly 70% of the sole residence students

felt that it would have been in their best interests

to have lived more with their father. More than half

(55%) said that their fathers had wanted equal residential

custody, but their mothers had opposed it.

Even those who spent two weekends every month

with their fathers said that this was not nearly

enough time together. The dual residence children

had closer relationships with their fathers and their

mothers than the others (34). Likewise, three years

after their parents’ divorce, 80% of the children in

the 597 shared parenting Wisconsin families were

spending just as much time with their father and

were more satisfi ed with their relationship with

him. In contrast, more than half of the children in

sole residence families were spending far less time

with their fathers and were unhappy about this

loss. A number of their relationships had ended

altogether (56). In a much smaller study, the fi ve

young adults from shared parenting families had

better relationships with their fathers and were

more likely to feel their parents had equal authority

than the 15 who had lived with their mother

and spent varying amounts of time with their

father (92).

International Studies, Same Conclusions

International studies reach the same conclusion.

In the Netherlands, 135 children in shared parenting

families had as close a relationship with both

parents as the 2000 children from intact families.

Their relationships with their fathers were closer

than the relationships of children who had spent

time regularly with their father, but lived with

their mother (5). Likewise, 16 Canadian college

students in dual residence had better relationships

with both parents than the 90 students who

had lived with their mothers (93). In an exceptionally

large international study, as Table 4 illustrates,

data were gathered from 36 countries,

where 2206 children were in dual residence and

25,578 in maternal residence. The shared parenting

children communicated better with their fathers

than the children in all other family types, including

intact families. This is especially noteworthy

in regard to daughters, since the daughters were

more than 2.2 times as likely as sons to have diffi –

culty talking with their fathers regardless of living

arrangements (89).

SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART II OF II) 129

Older studies reached similar conclusions. In the

Stanford Custody Study, four years after their parents’

divorce, the dual residence adolescents had

closer and more trusting relationships with their

fathers than adolescents who had only spent every

other weekend with their fathers (Buchanan &

Maccoby, 1996). Likewise, in two smaller studies

involving 110 shared parenting families one year

after divorce, 90% of the mothers said that their

children had good relationships with their fathers,

compared to only 50% of the sole residence

mothers (55).

Most adolescents wish that they had more

say in when to switch homes.

Although not directly measuring the quality

of the father-child bond, several studies have

compared the fathers’ stress and dissatisfaction

in shared and in sole residence families. Stressed,

unhappy fathers are less likely to interact with their

children in ways that promote a meaningful relationship

(39). Given this, if fathers in shared parenting

are less stressed and less dissatisfi ed than other

divorced fathers, it is logical to assume that their

children will probably benefi t. And indeed, fathers

in shared parenting feel less stressed (88) and more

satisfi ed than fathers whose children live with their

mother (4;57).

In sum, children in shared parenting families

generally have stronger, more enduring relationships

with their fathers than children who lived

with their mother. Leaving aside the other benefi ts

associated with shared parenting, the quality and

endurance of the father-child bond in and of itself is

compelling data.

SHARED PARENTING: NEGATIVE OUTCOMES

In contrast to the majority of studies showing

equal or better outcomes for shared parenting

families, two Australian studies by one group of

researchers reached more negative conclusions (68).

These two studies have received considerable

media coverage, for example, in an ABC news story

entitled “Shared parenting hurting children” (94).

They are also frequently cited in academic journals

and at professional conferences for judges, lawyers,

and policymakers as arguments against shared

parenting (11;95–97) . Both studies were released in

a 169-page report commissioned by the Australian

government, but neither was peer-reviewed in an

academic journal. Understandably, many people

may only read the 20-page synopsis of this lengthy

report. Unfortunately, this can lead to misunderstandings

or misinterpretations of the actual data,

especially if readers are not aware of the methodological

shortcomings of the studies.

First and foremost, these parents and children

were not representative of most divorced families.

In the fi rst study, “the data are from a small nonrandom

select group of cases – high confl ict families

seeking help from community mediation” (p. 15).

“The small high confl ict nature of the sample means

that care should be taken not to generalize this fi nding”

(p. 14). A number of these parents had never

been married to each other, and the children were

more than twice as likely as children of divorce in

other studies to test in the borderline or high category

for psychological problems (p. 58). In the second

study, 90% of the infants’ parents had never

been married and 30% had never lived together –

neither had 57% of the parents of the two to three

year olds and 49% of the four to fi ve year olds.

Limitations in the Australian Studies

Other methodological problems have also been

pointed out by several renowned scholars (99,100).

First, the sample sizes were extremely small for

many of the comparisons. For instance, there were

fewer than 20 mothers in several of the groups providing

data on children’s wheezing, irritability,

visual monitoring, or persistence; and no more than

25 two to three year olds in shared care on any of the

seven factors being measured. Second, for children

under the age of two, shared care meant anywhere

from 4 to 10 overnights a month – a very broad defi –

nition that did not distinguish between parents who

were providing a great deal of overnight care and

those who were not. Third, “visual monitoring”

was measured and interpreted in ways that have

no established validity or reliability. The authors

devised their own measure and then interpreted the

results from their perspectives on attachment theory.

They chose three questions from the Communication

and Symbolic Behavior Scales and asked the mothers

to answer “yes” or “no” to each question: “When

this child plays with toys, does he/she look at you

to see if you are watching? When you are not paying

attention, does the child try to get your attention?

Does the child try to get you to notice interesting

130 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW

objects – just to get you to look at the objects, not to

get you to do anything with them?” On the basis of

these three questions, the researchers concluded that

shared care children were worse off because these

mothers said their infants and toddlers were more

likely to visually monitor them.

A fourth limitation is that the authors drew conclusions

about children’s stress and parent-child

attachment based on how frequently their mothers

said that they wheezed – which is of questionable

reliability and validity. Despite acknowledging

that the differences were not statisti cally signifi

cant until they added socio-economic status

(p. 135), the authors nonetheless concluded that:

“[h]igher rates of wheezing in the shared group

are congruent with the attachment/stress hypothesis.

Several studies confi rm a link between negative

emotional family environment and the onset

of asthma and wheezing in infancy.” (p. 147). The

authors have made a remarkable leap of logic by

implying that the stress of shared care was responsible

for the wheezing – and that this wheezing was

caused by stress, rather than by physical problems

such as bronchitis and asthma, which most commonly

cause wheezing in the general population

of children this age. Indeed, from infancy on, boys

are nearly twice as likely as girls to have asthma.

Consequently boys wheeze more than girls, with

25%–30% of infants having at least one episode of

wheezing before the age of one, increasing to 40%

by age four (98,101). Because there were more boys

in shared care than in primary care families, especially

for the four to fi ve year olds, the shared care

“children” (boys) would predictably have more

wheezing – as would any group of children who

had more boys. Second, wheezing is correlated

with many environmental factors having nothing

to do with stress – allergens in the child’s food, in

the home (including cockroach feces, mold, and

dust mites), and in the air. As for the connection

between stress and wheezing, asthmatic children

who wheeze the most are also the most likely to

have mothers who are more anxious, depressed,

stressed, and demoralized (102,103). However, this

correlational data should never be used to suggest

that these mothers “caused” their children’s wheezing.

It could very well be that having an extremely

asthmatic child who wheezes frequently causes

mothers to become more stressed and depressed.

The point is that wheezing, in and of itself, is not a

valid or reliable measure of stress, and should not

be used to make assumptions about stress or parent-

child attachment in shared care families.

As is true for any lengthy report, merely reading

the synopsis might lead to overly simplistic

and overly negative conclusions about shared

care. For example, according to the synopsis, “not

surprisingly” shared care families “tended” to

revert to primary mother residence and were more

than twice as likely to fail if the plan came about

through mediation (p. 12). Looking closely at the

data, we see that 53% of the 131 families started

out with shared care, decreasing to only 43% four

years later. Over four years, 18% of shared care

families changed to primary and 14% of primary

care changed to shared, so, apparently, both types

of families were about equally likely to revert to a

different plan (p. 35–36). In the “more than twice

as like to fail” group, there were only 23 couples –

couples who had a number of factors working

against them that may have had an equal or greater

impact on their failure than having a mediated

parenting plan. Compared to the 46 couples who

maintained shared care, these 23 couples started

out with more confl ict, more children, worse fatherchild

relationships, and less income and education.

Reading Reports in their Entirety

A few other examples highlight the importance

of reading reports in their entirety. The synopsis

states that shared care children were the least

satisfi ed of all care groups and reported the most

confl ict. Later in the report, we see that 13 of the

44 children in continuous primary care and 20 of

the 42 in continuous shared care were dissatisfi

ed with their arrangement – a difference of only

7 dissatisfi ed children. The least satisfi ed children

were those in “rigid” shared care. But these

were the families where the parents’ high ongoing

confl icts were creating the most distress for

the children. What readers may also overlook in

the synopsis is that, overall, the shared care children

were not more distressed by their parents’

confl icts than primary care children. Moreover, we

might have concluded that being in shared care

somehow increased children’s problems with inattentiveness

and hyperactivity, since the synopsis

states that they had “greater diffi culties in attention,

concentration, and task completion by the

fourth year of this study” (p. 14). As it turns out,

the shared and the primary care group means were

within the normal range on the test for hyperactivity

and inattention. The only children who were

in the “borderline” range (borderline x = 5.0 − 6.0

for boys) for hyperactivity/inattention were the

SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART II OF II) 131

10 boys in “rigid” shared care whose score (x =

5.2) was much higher than the general population

mean (x = 3.1) (p. 63). Then, too, the synopsis

states that amounts of overnight time were not

associated with children feeling that their father

was more emotionally available. This might easily

confuse readers who do not read later in the report,

“[g]reater amounts of overnight time with a father

confi dent in his own parenting ability from the outset

was important to children’s perceptions of their

fathers’ capacity to understand, be interested, and

responsive to their needs” (p. 54).

Changing parenting plans over the years is

not necessarily a bad thing.

Other misunderstandings might occur in regard

to the synopsis statements about children under

the age of three. “Infants under two years of age

living with their non-resident parent for only one or

more nights a week were more irritable and more

watchful and wary of separation than young children

primarily in the care of one parent” (p. 9 ). The

shared care children “showed signifi cantly lower levels

of persistence with routine tasks, learning, and

play than children in the other two groups” (p. 17).

“Thus regardless of socio economic background,

parenting or inter-parental cooperation, shared

overnight care of children under four years of age

had an independent and deleterious impact on

several emotional and behavioral regulation outcomes”

and was associated with “severely distressed

behaviors in their relationship with the primary

parent” (p. 9). What is not stated until Appendix 1

is that the shared care infants had exactly the same

irritability score as the 3851 infants from intact

fami lies (x = 2.50) and had almost the same score

on visual monitoring as the 4041 infants from intact

families, x = 2.48 and 2.41, respectively. Moreover,

the authors later acknowledge that the differences

in the ratings for infant irritability and visual

monitoring became signifi cant only after parenting

warmth, confl ict and SES were added to the model

(p. 132–133). (Italics are mine)

More Nuanced Conclusion

In sum, the limitations of this study call for

a more nuanced and less negative conclusion

than what is offered at the end of the synopsis:

“[b]y implication shared care should not normally

be the starting point for discussions about parenting

arrangements for very young children” (p. 10).

These two Australian studies are certainly not alone

in having shortcomings and limitations. Indeed,

all studies have their fl aws and limitations. What

is troubling, however, is that they are so widely

disseminated and so often cited as evidence that

shared parenting is “bad” for young children.

Moreover, putting so much emphasis on these two

studies may lead to overlooking the more positive

outcomes in the other 25 international studies: children

in shared parenting families generally have

equal or better outcomes on measures of emotional,

behavioral, psychological, physical, and academic

well-being. Above all, they generally have far better

relationships with both parents than children who

live with only one of their parents.

CHILDREN’S PERSPECTIVES

ON SHARED PARENTING

Leaving aside the academic, behavioral, or psychological

benefi ts, how do the children themselves

feel about shared parenting? Most researchers have

not asked the children how they feel about living

with both parents. However, those that have

are remarkably consistent in their results. So how

happy or satisfi ed are most of these children? Do

they feel that the stress and hassle is worth it? Or

do they feel like “suitcase kids” who are “bounced

around” and “homeless”?

Fortunately, most children feel the benefi ts outweigh

the hassles and inconveniences of living in

two homes. In a survey with 136 Australian children,

most of those in shared care liked living with

both parents – mainly because they appreciated the

importance of having a close relationship with both

parents. Although many said it was inconvenient

keeping up with their things in two homes, this

was also true for children who only spent weekends

with their fathers (59). In another Australian

study with 105 adolescents in dual residence, most

agreed and were satisfi ed with their parents’ decision

(58). Similar results emerged from a British

study with 73 shared parenting children. Despite

having to adjust to different household rules and to

make the emotional shift when changing from one

home to the other, most preferred living with both

parents to living with only one. Given their busy

social lives, adolescents felt more inconvenienced

than younger children. Some children wished they

132 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW

could live in one home because they found the

other parent boring, because that parent had fewer

creature comforts to offer, or because they disliked

a stepparent or stepsiblings. Still, most felt that

having a close relationship with both parents outweighed

the hassles – and many enjoyed having

a break from each parent from time to time (104).

Likewise, in depth interviews with 15 Norwegian

children ages nine to 18 who had lived three to

10 years in shared families found that only one of the

children would have preferred to live in one home.

Although some said that it would be more convenient

to live in one home, they felt dual residence

was the best choice because they loved both parents

equally (87). Similarly, in the Swedish national

health and welfare study, most dual residence children

said that they were glad to have the chance

to develop close relationships with both parents.

Although some wanted to live in only one home,

they did not want to hurt their parents’ feelings by

suggesting a change (8). For another 31 American

adolescents living in dual residence four years

after their parents’ divorce, most felt that this was

the best arrangement for them (47). Likewise,

80 American college students at the University of

Arizona reported that living with both parents had

been in their best interests, in contrast to 70% of the

other 330 students who wished that their divorced

parents had allowed the children to live in both

homes (34).

Overall then, most children feel that living with

both parents is a sacrifi ce, a compromise, and a

trade-off. But it is one they generally feel is worth

making for the payoff: a better relationship with

both parents. Not surprisingly, most children –

especially adolescents – wish that they had more

say in when to switch homes and how long to stay

with each parent. Understandably though, the kind

of ever-changing “fl exibility” that children would

ideally like to have would be diffi cult, if not impossible,

for most parents to provide, given their own

demanding schedules at work and at home.

STABILITY OF SHARED PARENTING FAMILIES

A fi nal concern about shared parenting is that

these children may have a less “stable” lifestyle,

meaning that these families cannot maintain this

lifestyle. Consequently, these children will have to

undergo the stressful ordeal of moving back to live

with their mother – a move that results primarily

from the stress and unhappiness of “experimenting

with” shared parenting. Several studies from 25 to

30 years ago found that many children who started

out living in both homes moved back to live fulltime

with their mothers in a relatively short period

of time. Most of these studies, however, were based

on small, non-representative samples of extremely

high-confl ict couples, many of whom were still in

the midst of legal battles over custody (105). This

kind of instability appears to be far less common

today, as Table 4 illustrates.

Beginning with the oldest studies, in the

Stanford Custody Study, roughly 50% of the children

moved from dual to sole residence, but

another 20% moved from sole to dual residence.

Moreover, the moves took place over the course

of four years. Most children who moved back

to live with their mother full time did not move

because of family stress and unhappiness. Most

moved for economic reasons. Either their fathers

could no longer afford to maintain housing suitable

for the children or he had to move out of

town to fi nd a job. Interestingly, too, as children

approached adolescence, they were more likely

to move full-time to their father’s home than to

their mother’s (47,62). In smaller studies from

the 1980s, most dual residence families were still

functioning two years after the divorce: 65%

in 48 families (53), 94% of 440 families, 80% in

110 families (55) and 80% in 38 families (61). More

recently, in the Wisconsin study with 597 shared

parenting families, three years after their divorce

Table 4 Children’s Satisfaction with Life

Compared to Children from Intact Families

After Controlling for

Their Perceptions of

Their Family’s Economic

Situation

Intact Family Contrast Contrast

Shared custody − .26 * − .21 *

Mother &

stepfather

− .41 * − .33 * +

Single mother − .44 * − .28 * +

Single father − .58 * − .49 * +

Father &

stepmother

− .63 * − .62 * +

* Children are signifi cantly less satisfi ed than those in intact

families (p<.001)

+ Children are signifi cantly more satisfi ed after factoring in

their economic situation but remain statistically less satisfi ed

than children in intact families.

SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART II OF II) 133

90% of the children were still living in dual residence

(106). Likewise, 94% of the 440 families

in a recent Australian study were still sharing

the parenting two to four years after separating

(59). Understandably, young, never married, low

income, poorly educated ,or physically abusive

couples are the least likely to succeed at maintaining

their shared parenting family (68).

Overall then, shared parenting families are stable

when the parents have formerly been married,

are not physically abusive, and are not struggling

with poverty. It is also worth noting, however,

that changing parenting plans over the years is

not necessarily a bad thing. These changes might

refl ect the kind of fl exibility that better meets children’s

needs as they age. Just because some children

move from dual to sole residence or vice

versa does not necessarily mean that there will be

a “bad” outcome or that the family is “unstable.”

“Instability” should not be confused with “fl exibility.”

Making a change in the initial parenting

plan may mean that the parents are being fl exible

and responsive in ways that will benefi t their

child (4).

CONCLUSION

Given what decades of research have taught us

about the importance of nonresidential fathering

time, the benefi ts associated with shared parenting,

the characteristics of these parents, and the

over-emphasis on divorced parents’ confl ict, it is

unfortunate that this body of research continues

to be ignored in a number of recent publications

(italics are mine). For example, “Research shows that

the best interests of children are not connected to

any particular pattern of care or amount of time”

(with their fathers) (95). “No convincing argument

can be made on behalf of shared care for the

children’s benefi t.” “The research makes clear that

father presence and frequency of contact in and of

itself is not a signifi cant factor.” The message from

this research should be clear: it is of crucial importance

in every case to try to minimize the degree of

confl ict between the adults, even if this leads us to

the now almost heretical conclusion that to continue

to expose the primary career and child to

continuing confl ict through the promotion of contact

with the father may be doing more harm than

good. Moreover, the levels of confl ict between

parents show no sign of diminishing with time (97).

“It is clear from recent Australian research that

many shared care arrangements are tried out on

a temporary basis but do not endure long term.”

“In fact, there is little if any evidence that the mere

amount or frequency of contact (with fathers) is

better or worse for children” (11). Given the growing

popularity of shared residential parenting, policymakers

and professionals who work in family

court, as well as parents, should fi nd the research

compelling. As demonstrated in this review,

overall, these studies have reached four general

conclusions:

• First and foremost, most of these children

fare as well or better than those in maternal

residence – especially in terms of the quality

and endurance of their relationships with

their fathers.

• Second, parents do not have to be exceptionally

cooperative, without confl ict, wealthy,

and well educated or mutually enthusiastic

about sharing the residential parenting in

order for the children to benefi t.

• Third, young adults who have lived in these

families say that this arrangement was in

their best interest – in contrast to those who

lived with their mothers after their parents’

divorce.

• And fourth, our country, like most other

industrialized countries, is undergoing a shift

in custody laws, public opinion, and parents’

decisions – a shift towards more shared residential

parenting.

With the research serving to inform us, we can

work together more effectively and more knowledgeably

to enhance the well-being of children

whose parents are no longer living together.

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