First, let's establish this right away:
Shared parenting isn't right for families where one parent struggles with addiction, there is a history of violence or abuse, or severe mental illness.
As of April, 2018 Kentucky became the first state in the country with a “legal presumption” for joint custody in divorce proceedings. That means that when you split in Kentucky, time with the kids is equally split in half — and the onus is on one parent to argue the other should have less time.
Other states including Arizona, Missouri and South Dakota also have very progressive and strong shared-custody laws, and 25 states are debating legislation that would do the same.
For the vast majority of separated and divorced families, shared parenting is what is best for children.
There are more than 60 peer-reviewed, published articles that prove this.
Child custody types
There are two parts of child care when it comes to the legal separation of parents in divorce or family court:
Legal custody, refers to the legal rights a parent has to decision-making rights for major issues, including education (which school the child attends), religion, and medical decisions.
Visitation, or time-sharing, or residential custody are all terms that refer to the amount of time the children spend with each parent. Children live with parents who have “primary physical custody.”
These two elements can be combined into a number of parenting arrangements:
- Sole custody: One parent has both physical and legal custody of the children. The other parent may have visitation rights, but cannot make decisions outside of the time spent with the child.
- Joint legal custody: Both parents have equal say in decisions that impact the child. Major dispute between parents with joint legal custody, are either settled in courts, through lawyers or mediators, or, if the custody agreement stipulates, the parent who has primary residential timesharing makes the final decision.
- Joint physical custody: When parents share approximately equal time with both parents. This is also called 50/50 parenting, shared parenting, equal time-sharing, equal care, and equal co-parenting.
This post elaborates on why equally shared joint physical parenting is best for children, according to research.
Shared parenting is best for parents and kids
It turns out that shared parenting is best for parents, both mothers and fathers.
After all, when you have a real break from your kids, a true support system in parenting, where the logistical, emotional, financial circus of childrearing is shared, the adults are free to build careers and businesses, devote important time to health, relationships and self-care.
This is not my opinion. It is fact, as outlined in the studies summarized below. This research is heeded by family courts and legislatures around the country.
In 2017, bills that would mandate that custody and visitation arrangements start at 50-50 were introduced in state 25 legislatures.
In 2018, that number is 20 states.
These are bipartisan efforts, and based on the research, and also common-sense morals: It is unethical and sexist to presume that one parent is a better parent than the other, and both parents are legally entitled to time with his or her children.
Morality aside: Research finds time and again is best for children when they have equal time with both parents.
What is shared parenting?
Shared parenting means that in the event of separation or divorce, the children spend approximately equal time with both parents.
Often called “joint physical custody,” or “50-50 custody,” courts generally consider at least 35 percent of the time spent with one or the other to be equitably shared time, for the sake of being reasonable and managing the logistics of everyday life.
Shared custody has been common for decades, and this means that both parents have joint legal decision making powers when it comes to medical care, education, religion and where the children will live.
What is new is the deviation from the most common, traditional divorced-family schedule:
Children reside with the mother, every-other-weekend and one weeknight with the father, and the father pays child support.
As research has found this time split to be detrimental to the children's well being, there has been a culture and legal shift towards shared parenting.
In Kentucky and other states leading the way on this front, the presumption is that both parents are fit, and therefore granted equal access to their children. The onus is on one or the other parent to show cause to minimize time with the children, such as in cases of addiction, severe mental health or abuse. Similar laws are commonplace throughout the world, but not the United States.
Terry Brennan, co-founder of Leading Women for Shared Parenting, which is leading this cause, said that it is not a tough campaign to convince legislators to support shared parenting bills — but that state bar associations consistently lead opposition to these laws.
“Research finds that this is a bipartisan issue, with both Democrats and Republicans supporting it equally, as well as both men and women.”
– Terry Brennan
Ginger Gentile, activist and filmmaker of Erasing Family, which explores the epidemic issue of parental alienation, which is closely related to a lack of shared parenting, said that in her research of the leading experts on divorced families, she struggled to find any voices that opposed shared parenting.
Learn more: Parental alienation resource center
5 research-based reasons shared parenting is best for kids
Wake Forrest professor and shared parenting expert Linda Nielsen crunched the data of 54 studies and found that absent situations in which children needed protection from an abusive or negligent parent even before their parents separated—children in shared-parenting families had better outcomes than children in sole physical custody families.
This includes high-conflict divorces in which the fighting continues long-term. The measures of well-being included:
- Academic achievement
- Emotional health (anxiety, depression, self-esteem, life satisfaction)
- Behavioral problems (delinquency, school misbehavior, bullying, drugs, alcohol, smoking)
- Physical health and stress-related illnesses
- Relationships with parents, stepparents, and grandparents.
Shared parenting in high-conflict relationships
From an article in Psychology, Public Policy and Law:
“The best research currently available suggests that the quality of the parent-child relationship is more closely linked than parental conflict or the quality of the co-parenting relationship to children’s outcomes, with the exception of the most extreme forms of conflict to which some children are exposed.”
Conflict, coparenting, and the quality of the children’s relationships with each parent are all connected to children’s well-being.
This is not an “either-or” issue that ignores the role that parental conflict or co-parenting play in children’s lives.
Still, the data strongly supports the idea that the quality of the parent-child relationship is the best predictor of future outcomes for the children.
In other words, the role of conflict has too often been exaggerated and should not be the determining factor in child custody decisions or in regard to JPC arrangements except in those situations where the children need protection from an abusive or negligent parent.
Children need time with both parents
There is no reason to postpone overnight visits of infants or toddlers.
In fact, 110 international experts agree with the conclusion reached by psychologist Richard Warshak in his recent research paper:
“There is no scientific evidence that justifies limiting or postponing overnighting until children of separated parents reach the age of four.”
Read this whitepaper by bestselling author (Divorce Poison) and professor Warshak: Stemming the Tide of Misinformation: International Consensus on Shared Parenting and Overnighting.
Traditional visitation schedules can weaken father-child relationships for life
Study by Wake Forrest professor Linda Nielsen, published in the American Journal of family Law:
“Most children want to spend more time living with their fathers. Most do not like the every other weekend”
Indeed, this is one of the most consistent, most robust findings in the research on children of divorce.
Most children say they wanted more time with their fathers and that the most long lasting, most negative impact of their parents’ divorce was the weakened or lost relationship with their fathers.
The majority who had lived with their mothers said that shared parenting would have been in their best interests.
Not surprisingly, when fathers try to rebuild their relationships during the children’s early adult years, the relationship is often too strained or too damaged to be reconstructed.
As one of the most highly respected researchers on children of divorce, Joan Kelly, states,
“[f]or four decades children have reported the loss of the father as the most negative aspect of divorce. Even when they continued to see each other, most relationships declined in closeness over time. This has been primarily a result of the traditional visiting patterns of every other weekend which has been slow to change even in the face of mounting research evidence and a reluctance to order overnights for your children.”
How you can become a successful co-parenting while advocating for shared parenting:
- Activism starts at home. Work on co-parent in your own family, heal yourself, and model better separated families for those around you. Tips for how to co-parent with even the most difficult ex
- Share the financial responsibility of childrearing, while also moving the needle on gender equality: Close the pay gap? Get dads involved? 50/50 custody, no child support
- Educate yourself about parental alienation, and understand the real reasons men stop seeing their children. A dad explains: “Why I don’t see my son” gives a father's perspective on this issue, while these posts shed more light on the issue:
Research, studies and articles about shared parenting:
List of 20 published articles about benefits of shared parenting from Leading Women for Shared Parenting
Institute for Family Studies: 10 Surprising Findings on Shared Parenting After Divorce or Separation
TIME magazine: This Divorce Arrangement Stresses Children Out Most
Related documentary and books on shared parenting:
Recommended shared parenting documentary: Divorce Corp
Blend, The Secret to Co-Parenting and Creating a Balanced Family, By: Mashonda Tifrere
Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You, By: by Amy J. L. Baker, PhD and Paul R Fine, LCSW
Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing, By: Dr. Richard A. Warshak
Wealthysinglemommy.com founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist and author. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker,” her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Emma's Top Single Mom Resources.