5 Big Lies About Shared Parenting

_DSC4179 - Version 2Canada’s MP’s will continue their debate on Saskatchewan MP Maurice Vellacott’ s private member’s bill C-560 on shared parenting on May 27, 2014, with a vote expected to follow days later.

Recent polls from Nanos confirm that 80% of Canadians want a change in the way custodial decisions are made and the chaos in our family courts has united parents, lawyers, and judges to insist on real reforms to eliminate the soul-destroying financial and emotional devastation wreaking havoc among Canadian families who dare step a foot into the litigation pond.

So the passage of the bill should be a fait accompli, nest-ce pas? Not so fast….

It appears that both Liberals and New Democrats have changed their views on shared parenting since the 1998 Joint House of Commons/Senate Report entitled “For the Sake of the Children”, a much-heralded report commissioned during Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s tenure, where politicians of all stripes recommended that shared parenting be implemented to enable divorced parents and their children to maintain a close and continuous relationship after marriage breakdown.

That was then and this is now, and today the Conservatives alone stand to support an initiative whose time is well over due. You ask, if Canadians support shared parenting why wouldn’t their political leaders follow suit?

That puzzles me too because the psychological literature in the 1990’s regarding custody, access, and parenting was rife with findings that favoured a maternal preference, while today those old wives’ tales and custody myths have been demolished by cutting-edge, international research, such as American Dr. Richard Warshak’s 2014 treatise on shared parenting that has garnered the written support of another hundred experts in the field.

So what kool-aid are they drinking? It appears that many of the political naysayers are guzzling the views of the Canadian Bar Association, who purport to represent the views of Canada’s lawyers, who I say, have got it wrong. So what is the truth about shared parenting?

1. Shared Parenting Means Giving Up the Best Interests of the Child Test. NOT TRUE

-A rebuttable presumption of shared parenting does not abandon an examination of what is in a child’s best interests, it merely codifies the position that both parents, if fit, have a shared responsibility to parent their child.

2. Shared Parenting Focuses on Parental Rights Rather Than Children’s Rights. NOT TRUE

– Shared parenting permits children to have a real relationship with each parent, which is their right and a parent’s obligation.

3. Shared Parenting is Strictly a Men’s Rights Issue. NOT TRUE

-While men have been the primary victims of our custody laws, women are also affected as parents, grandparents, partners of parents and supporters of a fair and just system of family law. An American- based group “Leading Women for Shared Parenting” with international membership, voices women’s concerns about outdated custody assumptions.

4. Shared Parenting is Not What Children Want, They Want One Home. NOT TRUE

-Renowned American psychologist and parenting expert, Dr. Joan Kelly, dismisses the myth that kids want to live with one parent and highlights the negative consequences of one-parent homes.

5. Shared Parenting Only Works for Older Children and Teens. NOT TRUE

-Dr. Warshak’s research shows that the misguided notion that children under six-years-old are too young to have overnights with both parents has done a frightening disservice to children and parents alike.

If we had implemented the recommendations from 1998, Canada could have led the way down a path that is being adopted by multiple countries and many jurisdictions in the United States. Will we allow our lawmakers to miss the boat a second time? I hope not.

The Case for Shared Parenting

There is a groundswell of activity and energy swirling throughout North America as lawmakers take a closer look at shared parenting, also known as joint physical custody.

Despite the best efforts of dinosaur lawyers and jaded feminists to disparage a better model for parenting, shared parenting is a child-centered response to the institutionalized model of parenting that has plagued families far too long.

Based on twentieth century cultural traditions of stay-at-home moms and working dads, the maternal preference was shored up by untested psychological theories about mothers and children that unwittingly led to a template of a “visiting” parent, usually relegated to every second weekend for a total of four nights per month.

The primary caregiver model became the default position without consideration of the quality of parenting, the psychological functioning of each parent, or the history and nature of the parent/child relationship.

Good parents were lumped together with dysfunctional parents because judges relied on precedent, a straight-jacket that we now know has hurt generations of children and needlessly disempowered parents.

Later most jurisdictions added a week night visit for the non-custodial parent. Who are we kidding by using gender neutral language? It’s “Dads” that are marginalized by these entrenched legal and judicial practices.

But the tide is slowly turning as the public clamour for a more civilized way to determine custody, and social science researchers provide empirical evidence that compels a reconsideration of a parenting regime that is far past its due date.

Dr. Joan Kelly, well-known psychologist and parenting researcher, confirms the literature demonstrates numerous benefits to children when their living arrangements enable supportive and loving fathers to be actively involved in their children’s lives on a weekly and regular basis, including overnights. The outcomes for children include better psychological and behavioral adjustment, and enhanced academic performance.

She also notes that children and adolescents who have lived in a shared parenting arrangement are generally satisfied, feel loved, have less feelings of loss, and do not frame their lives through the lens of parental divorce, compared with those who have been placed in the sole custody of their mothers.

With the endorsement of 110 international research scholars, Dr. Richard Warshak recently published “Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report” in Psychology, Public Policy and Law 2014 Vol. 20 #1- p.46-67 which concludes that shared parenting should be the norm for children of all ages, including very young children. The consensus was that 50/50 parenting is also indicated where the logistics of the parents’ schedules are compatible with that arrangement.

Of course, it is universally accepted that deficient, negligent or abusive parents, and those that may have mental illness or substance abuse problems will rarely be candidates for shared parenting.

Public sentiment on shared parenting can be illustrated by Massachusetts’ 2004 non-binding election ballot where 85% of voters, numbering 530,000 people, agreed that children should live with both parents following divorce. In another survey of 375 people called for jury duty, 67% of them favoured shared residential parenting. (Braver et al 2011)

Presently seven States promote shared parenting including Arizona, Alaska, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas, and Wisconsin. A Florida bill for alimony reform and shared parenting was expected to pass, but was crushed by a veto from Florida’s governor. The proposed amendment sought to increase the minimum amount of parenting time from 25% to 35%.

Connecticut established a Task Force to study the issue of shared parenting, with a report expected this month. In Maryland, legislators initiated a Commission on Child Custody Decision Making with a report due in late 2014.

Canada’s Bill C-560 on shared parenting is scheduled for second reading in the House of Commons in mid-March 2014. In previous iterations of this bill there has been non-partisan support from the Liberals, Conservatives and the Green Party, the latter two include shared parenting in their platforms.

For those who ignore the burgeoning research and say the jury is still out, or those who continue to rely on the tired refrain that shared parenting is impossible with the rancour that accompanies divorce, a new day is dawning.

It can’t come too quickly for Canada’s children.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang