Research Supports Shared Parenting Legislation

Shared parenting legislation is making its mark across the country with at least half a dozen states considering bills that would implement equal parenting in child custody cases.

One reason for the increased awareness is Dr. Linda Nielsen’s report “Shared Parenting: A Review of the Support Research.” Nielsen is a nationally recognized expert on father-daughter relationships, president of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, and professor of women’s studies at Wake Forest University. She was also featured on DadsDivorce.com for her interview on father-daughter relationships.

Nielsen examined dozens of studies to highlight the benefits of shared parenting where children live a minimum of one-third of the time with each parent.

Despite tradeoffs and challenges associated with shared parenting (i.e. inconvenience of living in two homes), Nielsen concluded only allowing fathers and children to live together 15 or 20 percent of the time is not in most children’s best interests.

“Needless to say, the quality of a parent’s relationship with a child cannot be negotiated or mandated by the legal system,” Nielsen wrote. “But what can be negotiated and mandated is a more equal distribution of time so that each parent has ample and equal opportunities to create the best possible relationship with their children. Our society and our legal system can – and must – do better than this.”

Changing the legal system to eliminate bias against fathers is an uphill task, according to research findings. The divorce lawyers for men at Cordell & Cordell fight for men’s rights and frequently encounter the anti-male bias in family courtrooms across the nation.

In surveys of 4,579 judges and lawyers from Maryland, Missouri, Texas and Washington, nearly two-thirds of the judges said that maternal preference was still common and two-thirds of the lawyers said that dads were treated unfairly in custody cases (Dotterweich, 2000).

Part of this institutional partiality stems from poorly trained custody evaluators who are biased against fathers and lack expertise (Emery, Otto, O’Donohue, 2005; Kelly, 2005). For example, in one survey of 81 custody evaluators, 70 percent were opposed to children under the age of two ever spending the night in their father’s home, and 96 percent were opposed to older children’s living alternate weeks with each parent (Ackerman, 2006).

A primary goal of shared parenting is to maintain and to strengthen father-child relationships by increasing the amount of time fathers and children live together in more extended periods of time.

However, fathers are seldom able to maintain an authoritative, engaged, intense relationship with their children because most fathers are awarded so little parenting time and roughly 35 percent of these fathers have no legal say in how their children are raised.

That’s when the “Disneyland Dad” phenomenon takes over. A father who is being legally disenfranchised and physically marginalized, often feels demoted to an adult “playmate” or an “uncle” who can do little or no real fathering. (DeCuzzi & Lamb, 2004; Trinder, 2008).

“To sustain a meaningful, high quality relationship, parents need enough time and the kind of time that allows them to be fully engaged in their children’s lives,” Nielsen wrote. “This means having time during the school week and having extended time where authoritative parenting can take place – not time that is sliced and diced into small parcels. Unfortunately most divorced fathers are mainly limited to weekend time, which typically is largely focused on recreational activities.”

Finally, there is a strong connection between the amount of time that fathers and children spend together and the ongoing quality of their relationship. Nielsen cites several studies to prove this point:

  • In a nationally representative survey of 300 young adults, the amount of time their divorced dads had spent with them as teenagers was the strongest predictor of how close they felt to him as young adults (Aquilino, 2010).
  • But because 40 percent of these sons and daughters had not seen their father even once a month after the divorce, as adults 65 percent of them did not feel close enough to talk to him if they felt unhappy or depressed and 52 percent would not seek his advice if they had a major decision to make (Aquilino, 2010).
  • Children from shared time families had fewer stress related illnesses and were less likely to wonder if their fathers loved them than those who had lived with their mothers (Fabricius, 2003; Fabricius & Leuken, 2007).
  • Regarding younger children, in a review of 33 studies published between 1982 and 1999, the children whose parents had shared legal custody and who, in turn, had more shared physical custody, were better off than the children living only with their mothers (Bauserman, 2002).
  • Those shared time children were also doing better academically, emotionally, psychologically and socially (Bauserman, 2002).

Note: Nielsen’s paper focused on the research that supports shared parenting for 85 to 90 percent of divorced parents who are not involved in extreme, violent or physically abusive conflicts since shared parenting is understandably more problematic for high-conflict parents.



Matt Allen

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