Is joint custody the best arrangement for kids? Should infants and toddlers be shuttled between two homes? Is it important to include children in decisions about custody? These are just some of the vexing questions facing parents, attorneys, judges, mediators and others who are involved in navigating the divorce process.
Recently, several thoughtful reports have been released that summarize the state of the research on these issues. The results are not simple, but they provide some helpful insights into what parents need to consider in managing parenting following divorce.
Marsha Pruett, Smith College of Social Work, provides a general set of guidelines for children at different ages. She notes that children at different ages have varying needs and differing abilities to navigate and cope with variations in changing families. She notes that equal time in parenting is not always the best arrangement for families. She also reminds parents, "It is the quality of time and parenting - not the quantity - that is more highly related to closeness between parent and child." She advises, "The absolute amount of parenting time should be emphasized less than a plan that allows for a schedule that enables both parents to feel and act engaged and responsible."
A particularly challenging divorce situation is one in which the children are very young--infants and toddlers. There has been much debate about the appropriateness of overnight stays and shared parenting arrangements in general. Jennifer McIntosh has been studying this issue that provides a good summary of the research evidence to date. There is lots of evidence that parenting during the first 3 years of a child's life is critical to health development, particularly in how child manage their emotions and cope with stress. McIntosh's summary of the current evidence is that children in the first 3 years of life should not involve overnight care in two homes. She also notes that young children's attachment to the non-residential parent can be achieved through regular contact that involves "warm, lively, attuned caregiving." In short, children's development depends less on whether or not children sleep in two homes, than on the quality of the parenting.
There are three primary ways parents can help insure that their children have fewer difficulties following divorce writes, JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, "the degree and duration of hostile conflict, the quality of parenting provided over time, and the quality of the parent-child relationship." She summarizes the important research findings that focus on each of these factors. She emphasized that it is important for children to have rules and routines that give them a sense of security. Likewise, they need to know that they are loved and cared for by hearing the words, but also by actions that reflect active and engaged talk and play. And they will thrive better when their parents manage their own strong emotions and conflicts. She recommends that parents reframe their relationship to a more business-like model in which the goal is the well-being of the children. For high-conflict parents she describes a model of parallel parenting that can best serve children and minimize conflict.
All three of these articles provide important new insights into parenting and divorce. And each author concludes with recommendations for parents and the legal system.