Parents who prioritize routine after divorce to afford their children stability may not be giving them what they really need. Research says children have a very different take on what it takes to thrive post-divorce.
"What children want and what children need — what they see as stability — is open access to both parents," wrote Leslie Loftis for the Federalist. She pointed to a report by William V. Fabricius and Jeffrey Hall that looked back on earlier studies and found children want and do best with less regimented visitation schedules and more access to each parent.
"Children repeatedly insisted that being able to see the noncustodial parents whenever they wished and being able to see that parent often made their parents' divorces tolerable for them," the two wrote. It didn't matter which parent was custodial; the children wanted to divide their time between their parents.
"There is increasing consensus that the perspectives of children need to be taken into account in decisions made by divorcing parent and the courts and that young adults who have lived through their parents' divorces can be an important source about children's perspectives," the duo wrote in the introduction to their research, which asked 820 college students who had grown up with divorced parents about their living arrangements at the time and what they would have changed.
Most of the students said their fathers wanted more time with the children but that that their mothers, who had custody, did not want that. Loftis noted that thinking has changed some over the decades. New child advocacy groups have tended to favor a "presumption of shared parenting, rather than the current unstated presumption of primary maternal custody."
Mom is as important as dad to a child's well-being and development, but the push to get fathers more involved post-divorce reflects the fact that custody arrangements have long favored moms. According to U.S. Census figures, as many as one-third of children live in biological father-absent households.
Experts agree that issues like domestic violence, child abuse and addictions can provide sound reason to favor one parent over the other for custody. But it is increasingly agreed that absent such an issue, children should have access to both parents.
Even a decade ago, a release from the American Psychological Association said that "children from divorced families who either live with both parents at different times or spend certain amounts of time with each parent are better adjusted in most cases than children who live and interact with just one parent, according to new research on custody arrangements and children's adjustment."
The living arrangement itself did not have as much impact as whether or not children are able to spend time with both parents, according to that study, conducted by psychologist Robert Bauserman of AIDS Administration/Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore.
He did a meta-review of 33 studies that included 1,846 sole-custody and 814 joint-custody children, looking at how well the children adjusted in their different situations, whether joint physical or legal custody, sole-custody or intact families.
According to research, moms and dads bring different and important things to the parent-child relationship. A story co-published by the Deseret News and the The Atlantic said that dads, for instance, help with impulse control and memory, and situational flexibility. It cited research showing that children who are close to their fathers do better academically and are more likely to graduate compared to those with absent fathers. A father's role in a child's life also impacts whether or not a child uses drugs.
Kids benefit from the financial and emotional support of both parents. “There is a great deal of evidence that children from single-parent homes have worse outcomes on both academic and economic measures than children from two-parent families,” scholar Elaine C. Kamarck and Third Way president Jonathan Cowan wrote in the introduction to Wayward Sons, a report for Washington think tank Third Way. “There is a vast inequality of both financial resources and parental time and attention between one- and two-parent families.”
A Brigham Young University FatherWork page offers research and insight into challenges fathers may face after divorce. Among other things, it noted that "an assumption of most parents is that they will have a relationship with their child that consists of spending time together in the ordinary ways, such as bed and meal times; that families interact with each other daily. By their frequency, these events become so ordinary that they rarely stand out as notable." After divorce, those assumptions can fall away.
Family and divorce expert M. Gary Neuman offered expert advice for both parents on helping children get through divorce in an interview for WebMD: Avoid using children as a messenger between the two, he said. He warned about treating a child as a confidant or therapist and also about complaining to the children about the other parent.