Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) UK

- promoting responsible shared parenting after separation and divorce -

Shared Parenting - overcoming the arguments

(see also Shared Parenting - the arguments for)

Parents who desire shared parenting will frequently find themselves up against a whole range of false assumptions as to the needs of their children. These may be well meaning, but by depriving the child of the opportunity to maintain a full relationship with both parents they set the scene for heightening the anger, depression and deep sense of loss for both the child and the 'absent' parent.

It is ironic that shared parenting has been subjected to a level and intensity of scrutiny that was never directed towards the traditional divorce arrangement of sole residence to one parent and 4 - 6 days per month contact with the other. And yet there is a growing body of evidence that such post divorce relationships were not healthy for many children or parents and were in fact psychologically destructive for the children.

In what follows, the term 'father' is used to denote the non-resident parent, because he has historically had the problems of overcoing gender prejudice in child rearing, but it is acknowledged that in many cases the gender roles may be reversed.

The arguments:

The need for stability

It has long been identified that a child has a need for stability in their daily life in order to promote their development. This has been adapted to assume that after divorce the child will have geographic stability with only have one house, one toothbrush and one primary parent. It is argued that a child cannot successfully cope with the regular and frequent experience of visiting their other parent.
This argument is plainly false. Children need predictability rather than geographic stability - after all, intact families expect their children to cope with child minders, play groups, baby sitters and staying overnight with grandparents and friends. What is so different about maintaining the stability of a continuing and loving relationship with both parents - something which clearly cannot be achieved in a few hours a month ? As long as children know what is going on, they can cope with a wide range of situations.

Men can't 'mother'

It is frequently claimed that children (especially young ones) need to be brought up by their mothers. This argument comes mainly from Bowlby's work on attachment theory which has now largely been discredited. Bowlby's work stemmed from the desire of governments to remove women from the workplace after the Second World War and make room for men returning from the battle field. The work, which is supported by few other studies, focused on children's relationships with their mothers, while father's roles were dismissed as "playing second fiddle" - merely providing economic and emotional support for the mother.

Schaffer is critical of Bowlby and asserts that "the notion that the biological mother, by virtue of being the biological mother, is uniquely capable of caring for her child is without foundation". He contends that mothering is a function which both sexes are equally capable of performing, and stresses that fathers' relative lack of involvement in child rearing is essentially a cultural rather than a biological phenomenon.

Child anxious when separated from mother

It has also been observed that children experience anxiety when separated from their primary caretaker. But because of the dominance of maternal caring, it was not acknowledged that children became anxious and unhappy when separated from their fathers too. This is then an argument for more overall contact particularly for young children who may become very anxious if the gaps between visits are too long.

If we are to place a value on the permanence of relationships we need to spend more effort on developing creative and productive arrangements which will serve the child's needs. For example, in addition to mid-week and weekend staying access, many infants and toddlers benefit from their parent's visiting playgroup or nursery for lunch or to generally help.

Children upset by seeing their other parent

Likewise it is argued that children are upset by having contact with their other parent; the 'evidence' being that they are upset when they return to their residence parent.

Similar arguments were used to stop parents visiting their children in hospital - because it appeared that they 'upset' them. It was not until the 1950's that someone realised that the children were actually upset by being separated from their parents by unrealistic visiting hours (or even a total ban). Since then parents have been allowed unrestricted access to their children in hospital and even encouraged to stay overnight - much to the benefit of the children. The courts need to understand this argument when applied to contact and shared parenting.

Child unable to cope with different attitudes

Concern is often expressed about a child's ability to cope with differences in personality, style and attitudes of their parents after divorce. But the fact that no such concern is expressed in intact families shows this to be a specious argument.

Parents unable to co-operate

It is frequently claimed that shared parenting should only be occur if there is a possibility that the parents will co-operate sensibly, the assumption being that divorced parents are unable to co-operate about anything, including parenting. This is supported by two somewhat erroneous and simplistic notions about divorce:

a) That all aspects of the marriage have failed and that the conflict which led to divorce was about parenting

Adults divorce for many reasons related to adult needs and dissatisfaction, but conflict over child rearing is not among the prevalent reasons appearing in the originating pleas for divorce.

b) That the anger will remain undiminished.

The evidence is that it does diminish within the first year. Therefore the courts must avoid making policies and decisions based on a small minority of parents who thrive on the aggression encouraged by the adversarial legal system.

Shared Parenting should only occur if the parents agree

Basically it is argued that if the parents cannot agree there will be a hostile environment which will affect the children. Clearly there are some cases where this is so, but it is worth examining the situation closer.

Parents with sole custody orders are not immune from intense conflict which is witnessed by their children, and there is no evidence that shared parenting increases that hostility. It could be argued that any hostility which the children initially experience would be balanced by the opportunity to continue their relationship with both parents in a meaningful way.

Denying shared parenting solely because of one parent's opposition ignores the child's wishes and developmental needs.

There is thus a need to closely examine parental opposition to shared parenting on a case by case basis, remembering particularly the UK case of Caffell [1980] where the courts hoped that shared parenting would bring the parents together to co-operate for the benefit of the child.

Father's applications are vexatious

Because of the 'natural' presumption that children should be in the care of their mothers, it is invariably the fathers who have to apply for shared parenting. Courts are adept at damning fathers, and branding them as vexatious just because they want to continue to have a relationship with their children. What should be considered is that, given the advantages to the child of shared parenting, the parent who presses for sole custody must by definition be showing herself to be unfit.

One parent has not accepted that the marriage is over

Sometimes it is claimed that parents who desire shared parenting are still emotionally married, and are avoiding the reality of the divorce. Shared Parenting is then seen as an unhealthy pathological wish rather than a healthy desire to continue parental involvement.

It is thus important for absent parents to clearly state that they accept that the marriage is over. But even if shared parenting has elements of continuing attachment to a spouse it is not apparent how this could be detrimental to the child, unless the parent actively fosters the hope of reconciliation in the child.


David Cannon

Last updated - 15 September 1999

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