Politics & Policy

Children Need Both Parents Even after Divorce

State lawmakers should pass much-needed reform of child-custody laws.

When she and her husband were divorcing, Jennifer Fink felt the way a lot of parents do. She was angry at her husband, thought she was the better parent, and wanted sole custody of their two sons. But the law in her state, Wisconsin, strongly encourages shared parenting of children when Mom and Dad divorce, and that’s what the judge ordered. Now, five years later, Fink, who founded BuildingBoys and is involved in recent efforts to create the White House Council on Boys and Men, has a message for everyone going through a child-custody case:

“I thank the Wisconsin court system for presuming that shared parenting is in the best interest of children, because without that presumption, I’m pretty sure I would have happily assumed the larger portion of parenting and relegated the boys’ dad to a lesser role. And that, I now know, would have been bad for my boys, bad for their dad and bad for me,” Fink revealed in a recent post, “Is Shared Parenting Best for Boys After Divorce?

And yet Wisconsin is just one of two states that effectively encourage family judges to order equal — or almost equal — parenting time when parents divorce. Fortunately, many other states are considering following suit. This year, around 20 state legislatures are considering some form of equal-parenting legislation.

Indeed, one of the major factors behind our epidemic of fatherlessness is family courts that routinely consign one parent, usually the father, to mere visitor status in his children’s lives. Typically, non-custodial parents see their kids four days per month, plus a few hours one night per week, plus a few weeks during the summer. That usually works out to between 14 percent and 20 percent of the time.

As Fink so accurately says, that’s bad for kids. The overwhelming weight of scientific research demonstrates that children do better with two parents involved in their lives. Federal statistics show that kids with two parents are more likely to do well in school, stay out of jail, stay away from drugs and alcohol, avoid teen pregnancy, avoid depression, and, as adults, be gainfully employed than are their peers with a single parent.

That’s understandable. To be the best parents they can be, fathers and mothers both need the time, energy, financial resources, and parenting skills that the other parent provides. Plus, research has shown that children begin to form powerful biological attachments to their parents as early as their eighth week of life. That means the loss of a parent is among the most traumatic events a child can suffer.

The overwhelming weight of scientific research demonstrates that children do better with two parents involved in their lives.

And yet the default position for family courts is to separate children from one parent when the adults divorce. That damages children, and they show it. By contrast, shared parenting post-divorce is the best arrangement for children, as massive amounts of social science demonstrate. For instance, in April, a 150,000-person study supported shared parenting post-divorce.

Sole parenting is not in parents’ interests either, as Fink points out. Non-custodial fathers are eight times as likely to commit suicide as are fathers with children. As leading authority Edward Kruk of the University of British Columbia has written, parents with equal parental responsibility post-divorce have “better physical and emotional health, and less stress, resulting from the sense of purpose and personal gratification associated with active parenting; the highest levels of depression occur among adults who have a child . . . with whom they are not living.” 

Plus, single mothers with children living with them are far more likely to live in poverty than is any other segment of society. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that a whopping 31 percent of single mothers fall below the poverty line, compared with 5.8 percent of married women. That’s devastating for them and their kids.

The active legislative proposals in more than one-third of our nation’s states embrace society as it is, not as it was in the 1950s. Ours is now a society in which more families rely on women to bring home the bacon and in which fathers do more of the hands-on parenting than ever before. But more importantly, they reflect what we now know to be best for children when their parents divorce — maintaining active, meaningful relationships with both parents.

It is past time for lawmakers in every state to acknowledge the science on shared parenting and pass those shared-parenting bills. As Jennifer Fink said, “It was the court’s insistence on shared parenting that led to the co-parenting arrangement we have today, and I am so, so glad.”

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