Arkansas Advocates for Parental Equality

The Evidence Behind Shared Parenting

One of the many goals of Arkansas Advocates for Parental Equality is to advance shared parenting and joint custody, where each parent is given equal or near-equal time and access to his or her child. For a long time in Arkansas and around the nation, shared parenting and joint custody were the exception rather than the rule. In 2013, Act 1156 of the Arkansas legislature made joint custody and equal parenting time "favored" in Arkansas. Although this was a monumentous change, it was interpreted by the courts to mean that joint custody is simply "allowed" but not preferred over sole or primary custody. As such, it is still not routinely ordered. Not only is shared parenting the right thing from an equality standpoint, but significant evidence has mounted over the last 20 years showing its numerous benefits. These benefits extend first and foremost to the child, but also to the parents, courts, and society. Some key studies detailing this evidence are presented below. Links to the full articles are provided where possible depending on copyright or public accessibility. Otherwise, links to the journals are provided where one may purchase the articles to read.

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Numerous studies have been published in the last 20 years on the many benefits of shared parenting over primary or sole parenting. These studies compared children living in dual residence situations (typically defined as over 35% of the time with each parent) to those living primarily with their mother. Comparisons to living primarily with the father are typically not possible given the overall low numbers. As a whole, children in dual residence situations fared better in every measured category, including academic, psychological, emotional, behavioral, and physical health. They also showed better relationships with both their mothers and fathers. Children were shown to benefit most when fathers were actively engaged in their lives - something less likely to occur in the "Disney Dad" scenario created by every-other-weekend visitation schedules. Overnight stays with the father were especially notable for their positive effect on the children, greater father satisfaction, and less parental hostility. Despite some inconveniences of living in two households, children preferred this to living with only one parent. Dr. Linda Nielsen out of Wake Forest University has published several reviews on the topic that summarize the data over the last 30 years (Nielsen 2011, Nielsen 2014, Nielsen 2018). Her latest included all 60 English language studies on the topic, with nearly all coming to the same conclusion - joint custody is best for the child. These findings were independent of parental conflict or income, meaning it's not just parents who get along or make more money whose children do better. Additionally, a consensus report from over 100 leading researchers and practitioners in the field (Warshak 2014) was published to support the practice of joint custody, including for infants and young children. 

A meta-analysis - a statistical review pooling data from prior studies rather than a written summary - was done in 2002 that looked at joint versus sole custody and its effect on children (Bauserman 2002). The study methodology underwent extensive peer review prior to publication by the American Psychological Association, the largest and most prestigious organization representing psychology in the United States. The data strongly supported the outcome that children in joint custody situations were better adjusted than children of sole custody situations. Specific areas examined were general adjustment, family relationships, self-esteem, and behavioral and emotional adjustment. They also noted that joint custody parents reported less current and past conflict that sole custody parents, helping to dispel the myth that joint custody leads to greater conflict between the parents. Overall, the significant involvement of both parents in a child's life correlelated with better outcomes for the children and the parents.

A 2003 study from Arizona State University (Fabricius 2003) looked at the student's perspective on custody, visitation, and relationships with their parents. Being the recent children of divorced families, this is arguably the most important voice on the matter. It also reflects the view of a generation growing up after the change in gender and family roles of the late 20th century. Of their many findings, one was that 70% of the students felt the best arrangement was equal time with both parents. This is despite most of the students of divorced families reporting living with their mothers the majority of the time. The more time they spent with their fathers, the better their relationship was with their fathers - but there was no decrease in the relationship with their mothers, meaning a win-win outcome. The students reported that the primary reason for not having more time with their fathers when they wanted it was not because their fathers' preference, but because their mothers ‘‘just wanted me with her.’’ The students also recognized undermining behaviors of one parent toward the other and were more likely to hold a negative view of the offending parent. Overall, the students - the children of divorced families - felt that shared parenting was optimal and held more positive views and better relationships with both parents when this was the case.

Blended Family

Not only does joint custody benefit individual children and families, but evidence suggests it may benefit our society as a whole. A statistically significant correlation exists between lower divorce rates and higher rates of joint custody. The National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the CDC, gathered data on divorce rates and custody determinations for 19 states. A report from 1997 examining this data showed that states with family law policies encouraging joint custody had a greater decline in divorce rates than states favoring sole custody. Although causation can't be determined from the data, the inference is that divorce is less like to occur if there is less to gain from it. In practice, an award of primary custody means increased control, a position of superiority, higher child support, and the ability to alienate the other parent. These are all things that are lessened with joint custody since it turns divorce from a winner-take-all situation into a compromise. Other studies have compared the degree of relitigation (going back to court) in joint custody versus sole custody situations. The available studies on this subject are reviewed in Bauserman 2012. Overall, relitigation was either the same or less in the joint custody groups. Less litigation means less backlog in family courts, less tax dollars spent by the courts, and less expense to both involved parties - the only losers are the attorneys.

One significant misconception is that shared parenting only works if both parents get along or they agree to it. The positive data noted above generally excludes the 10% to 15% of couples considered "high conflict," which includes those who are extremely aggressive, physically threatening, violent, or abusive. It does, however, include those who argue, disagree, can't get along, rarely communicate, or simply don't like each other. In fact, studies have shown that levels of conflict and cooperation are no better or worse between those in shared residential custody versus those in single residence custody. In many situations, the parents in these studies did not initially want or agree to shared custody. In fact, it was found that most parents sharing custody did not work closely together, instead engaging in "parallel parenting" and only communicating as-needed. Even in situations where significant conflict continued, the children of shared custody still fared better than those in sole custody. Not even married couples are conflict-free, so we should not unfairly expect this from divorced couples. One should note that parents who want sole custody often improperly characterize their relationship as "high conflict" or purposefully stir up discord to avoid shared custody - high conflict relationships typically stem from 1 high conflict party. Reviews and citations of the studies on conflict and custody are provided in the Bauserman, Nielsen, and Warshak publications noted above.

We would like to take a moment to distinguish between joint legal custody and joint physical custody. Courts will often award joint legal custody but still give one party primary physical custody. The idea is that this gives the noncustodial parent rights when it comes to major decisions for the child, such as health care, religion, or education. Studies have shown that this does increase involvement of the noncustodial parent with the child and leads to better outcomes than sole legal custody. However, the reality is that joint legal custody does not convey equal decision making rights, and, in some cases, is little more than an empty consolation prize given to the noncustodial parent. If the two parents disagree, the custodial parent will be the one making the ultimate decision. More than anything, this is because since the child is living with the primary custodian, he or she can do as he or she pleases without the consent of the other parent. If the noncustodial parent can afford the $1000's to bring the issue to court, then he or she should expect the judge to give the custodial parent's voice greater weight. Such decisions include anything from where the child goes to school to moving the child across the country. In practice, the noncustodial parent only has legal decision-making rights if both parties agree, which is not truly a right at all. Only when parents are appropriated equal time with their children will they have equal legal rights as well.

Clearly, not all findings can be presented here and there will always be studies that disagree. However, the overall weight of the evidence shows that the burden of proof should now be on those who oppose joint custody - not those who support it. The superiority of joint custody is now the dominant belief in scholarly psychology as well as legal groups (minus bar associations). In addition to the scientific evidence, equal parental rights with equal standing under the law is simply the right moral and ethical path. It is not by chance that the move for parental equality is spreading and creating change throughout the nation - it is because the evidence is there and it is time for it to be put into practice.

Shared Parenting Research