The Missouri General Assembly has been looking at making shared custody the default custody position. Shared custody means that both parents have equal decision making power and equal periods of physical custody. Historically, the default position tended to favor the children staying with mom most of the time, and seeing dad on alternate weekends. Because we have had no-fault divorce for over thirty years, we have two generations to examine for whether the traditional or the shared custody position works best for children.
Linda Nielsen, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University, recently published an exhaustive study on whether children benefit from having mostly equal periods of time with both parents. Her research had some very interesting findings for those who advocate for shared parenting.
First, her research found that the typical justification for not ordering joint custody arrangements – that the parents cannot co-parent and cannot get along – is not the defining factor in whether children have good upbringing. Rather, the defining characteristic is the quality of the parent-child relationship. Children that had strong and positive relationships with both parents thrived, even if the parents themselves had difficulty working together.
Second, her research does not mean that conflict is irrelevant. It does mean that fostering strong parent-child relationships favors the welfare of the children, even with conflict-oriented parents.
Third, states should encourage strong parent-child relationships by adopting more shared custody plans. The more time a child spends with each parent, the more the child will develop a strong and positive relationship with that parent.
How important is that positive relationship? According to the research, it results in children who do better in school, have fewer social issues, have less likelihood to use drugs, and have a positive outlook on their future.
Obviously, in households where a parent had been abusive, shared custody would not be an option.
But other than that important caveat, the study concluded states should work harder to keep both parents as close to equally involved in the life of the child as possible.
Whether this research translates into different public policy remains to be seen.
If you have questions about shared custody and divorce, contact us – we can help.