There are many benefits of shared custody for both children and parents, and for good reason. Around half of all U.S. children experience the divorce of their parents, and nearly half of those children also witness the termination of a parent’s second marriage.
This means that divorce will affect half of America’s future decision-makers, and the responsibility falls on parents and courts to make sure that those effects are as minimal as possible.
But as important as that responsibility is, we still largely subscribe to an outdated and adverse model of custody, which relies on the old-fashioned assumption that the mother is the natural caregiver. Parents agree to give the mother full custody in over 51% of cases, relegating the father to a visitor status that harms children and parents alike.
Benefits of Shared Custody for Children
Logic suggests that if single parenting fails, shared parenting post-divorce must be the better choice. However, we needn’t rely on logic alone. Studies of families both in the U.S. and abroad have revealed that children who spend at least 35% of their time with each parent:
- Have better relationships with both their mother and father.
- Do better in school and receive better grades.
- Do better psychologically and socially.
- Are less likely to smoke, do drugs, and drink.
- Are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and other stress-related issues.
Effects of Single Parenting
When children grow up with a single parent, whether it’s their mother or father, they suffer in multiple ways. Federal statistics show that children raised by single parents make up:
- 90 percent of runaway and homeless children
- 85 percent of children with behavioral disorders
- 85 percent of those in prison
- 75 percent of children in chemical abuse centers
- 71 percent of those who drop out of high school
- 70 percent of juveniles in state-operated institutions
- 63 percent of teenage suicides
Despite the proof of single parenting’s harmful effects and the many benefits of shared parenting, critics continue to oppose shared custody. They argue that joint custody only works when both parents are in agreement and that children of shared custody families only succeed because their parents have less conflict and are better off financially.
Critics are especially adamant when it comes to infants and toddlers, insisting that this early stage of life is too important to be left to fathers’ care. This stage is crucial for children’s development, and because of critics’ way of thinking, many fathers miss out on it.
Responding to these claims, a researcher reviewed two groups of studies: one group compared conflict levels and relationship quality between sole custody and shared custody families, and the other compared children’s outcomes in each type independent of parental income and conflict. Her review revealed that:
- Conflict levels had nothing to do with joint parenting’s success. Children whose parents had high levels of conflict still benefited from shared custody, and no correlation between shared custody and less conflict exists.
- Income did not affect the outcomes of children of shared custody. Furthermore, parents with shared custody were not significantly richer than parents with sole custody.
- Most parents who share custody do not originally agree to the plan voluntarily. Mediation, court orders, or other negotiations are usually necessary for the parents to reach an agreement. Even so, their children fair better than those in single custody homes.
- Infants and toddlers who split time with parents have no worse outcomes than those who do not. Dividing overnight time between parents does not weaken these children’s bonds with either parent.
Parental conflict, family income, the mutuality of the decision, and the age of the children make no difference: children just benefit from growing up with both parents.
The Future of Parenting
All of this evidence is opening the eyes of local lawmakers, who are now seeing and understanding all the benefits of shared parenting. In April of 2018, Kentucky became the first state to pass a law that makes joint custody or shared parenting time a presumption in divorce cases involving children. One parent may be deemed unfit for shared parenting, but only if factors such as domestic violence are at play.
The fact that this bill passed unanimously in the Kentucky Senate and by 81 to 2 in the House shows how committed both parties are to changing the culture of the state’s family court system. Previously, the norm in Kentucky was to award nearly all parenting time to one primary custodian, and mere visiting time to the other.
Less than a month after Kentucky made this change, Virginia passed similar legislation that “requires the court to formally consider joint/shared custody on par with sole custody.” More bills may soon follow suit, as more than 20 other state governments have been considering enacting laws that would either encourage shared custody or make it the legal standard.
But these legal changes will only get us so far. Parents must consider the benefits of shared parenting and begin to think of it not as an ideal, but as their children’s right. Children deserve a childhood that will set them up for success, not failure — and it is parents’ duty to provide that by making joint parenting work.