Warshak responds to Penelope Leach on overnights with dad

Dr Richard WarshakPenelope Leach in her book ‘Family Breakdown’, published last week but trailed in advance in several newspapers, warned that children under 4 could be psychologically damaged by staying overnight with their father when the parents arer separated. 

The assertion will have worried fathers who have residence with their children or who have successfully negotiated some degree of shared overnight parenting with their former partner. No father will want to believe that he is doing harm by doing what he believes is right for both him and his children.

It will equally have undermined the efforts of fathers who are asking a court to order overninghts with their children when negotiations have failed.    

The US National Parents Organisation, asked Dr Richard Warshak for his response (https://nationalparentsorganization.org/recent-articles?id=21778) reproduced below with thanks). It is an important and concise summary of the social as well as scientific flaws in the Leach assertion.             

“The days are past when experts advised divorced dads to make a clean break from the family and remain, at best, visitors in their children’s lives. Growing awareness that children do best with two parents, whether parents are living together or separated, has led to a trend toward shared parenting. Yet some holdouts believe that shared parenting, appropriate for older children, is ill suited to meet the needs of young children.

The latest is Penelope Leach. Her forthcoming book, in defiance of conclusive evidence to the contrary, contends that children under four should not stay overnight with dad after separation.

Our society maintains a curious double standard when it comes to encouraging hands-on shared parenting. For instance, we want dads involved with their infants and toddlers — changing nappies, feeding, bathing, putting to bed, soothing in the middle of the night, cuddling in the morning. But when parents separate, some people mistakenly think that it is best for young children to spend every night in one home, usually with mom, even when this means losing the care their father has been giving them. Despite all strides in cracking gender barriers, many of us still think that it is a mother’s exclusive role to care for infants and toddlers, and that we jeopardize young children’s wellbeing if we trust fathers to do the job.

The result is the common custody plan where infants and toddlers whose have parents separated only get to see their dads a few hours at a time, a couple of days a week. Hurriedly loading and unloading the child into the car and driving to and from dad’s home at the end of a day hardly lays a good foundation for a comforting and secure relationship with dad.

Fortunately, science offers clear guidance on these issues. I spent two years reviewing the relevant scientific literature and vetting my analyses with an international group of experts in the fields of early child development and divorce. The results have recently been published in the American Psychological Association’s prestigious journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. The report is endorsed by 110 of the world’s leading researchers and practitioners from 15 countries. The endorsement by these scholars reflects a groundswell of concern among experts that misinformation about research evidence is impoverishing custody decisions and public policy.

It is unfortunate that Penelope Leach’s compendium of otherwise sage advice perpetuates a myth that relies on research that has been roundly criticized by these leading international authorities on child development. Leach claims that the evidence is undisputed that children under the age of five should spend every night in their mother’s home if their parents separate. Leach cites two outlier studies to support this radical view and overlooks a pool of studies that reported generally positive or neutral findings for overnights with fathers. The Australian study Leach cites relied on a group of 14 infants for some of its conclusions and used unreliable measures. The scientists endorsing the American Psychological Association recent publication concluded that the Australian study “provides no reliable basis to support custody policy, recommendations, or decisions.”So strong was the indictment and its underlying analysis that, in the wake of its publication, the lead author of the Australian study recently admitted: “Cautions against overnight care during the first three years are not supported.” Apparently Professor Leach has not received the update.

So how did we come to our conclusions based on the mass of evidence? Our first goal was to provide a balanced and accurate overview of settled, accepted research of the past 45 years relevant to parenting plans for children under the age of four whose parents have separated. Our second goal was to provide empirically supported guidelines for policy makers and for people who make custody decisions.

We found no support for the idea that children under four (some say under six) need to spend nearly all their time living with only one parent, when their other parent is also loving and attentive. Warnings against infants and toddlers spending overnight time with each parent are inconsistent with what we know about the development of strong positive parent-child relationships. Babies and toddlers need parents who respond consistently, affectionately, and sensitively to their needs. They do not need, and most do not have, one parent’s full-time, round-the-clock presence.

Many married mothers have work patterns that keep them away from their infants and toddlers at night. Like these married mothers, most single mothers do not need to worry about leaving their children in the care of their fathers. To maximize infants’ chances of having a secure lifelong bond with both parents, public policy should encourage both parents to actively participate in daytime and overnight care of their young children. After their separation, both parents should maximize the time they spend with their young children, including sharing overnight parenting time.

How did public policy and the direction of custody decisions go so wrong? It seems related to the legacy of the “motherhood mystique,” the idea that mothers are innately better suited to care for young children. John Bowlby put forward the notion that infants form enduring ties of affection with just one person, normally the mother, before all other relationships and that this relationship both ranks higher than and serves as a template for other relationships.

A number of studies have examined this hypothesis to see if it reflects infant experience. The research shows that children develop multiple relationships at around the same time. They form relationships with more than one care giver. These are independent of one another in the sense that the relationship with the mother is not a template for that with dad. Even John Bowlby came to recognize later in his career that infants form attachments with more than one caregiver. We cannot rank order these relationships.

It is clear that we should encourage relationships with both parents. Doing so doubles the infant’s chances of having at least one high-quality relationship. Also, moms and dads make different contributions to their children’s development.

The evidence continues to mount. A recent study reported long-term benefits to teenagers and young adults who, as preschoolers, spent overnights with their fathers after their parents separated. These children feel more important to their dads than do those who were deprived of overnights. They report better relationships with their dads at no cost to the quality of their relationships with their mothers. And these children showed no signs of any long-term stress-related health problems.

Of course, shared parenting is not for all families. Regardless of their children’s ages, parents should consider a number of factors when creating the best parenting plan. What works for one child in one family may not be best for another child in another family. Our recommendations apply to most families. Some parents are negligent, abusive, or grossly deficient in their parenting, and their children would need protection from them even in intact families, But that fact should not be used to deprive the majority of children who were being raised by two loving parents from continuing to have that care after their parents separate.

It is time to resolve our ambivalence and contradictory ideas about fathers’ and mothers’ roles in their children’s lives. If we value Dad reading Goodnight Moon to his toddler and soothing his fretful baby at 3 a.m. while the parents are living together, why withdraw our support and deprive the child of these expressions of fatherly love just because the parents no longer live together, or just because the sun has gone down?”  

Dr. Richard A. Warshak is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. His paper, “Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report,” is published in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, a journal of the American Psychological Association.