Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are getting divorced, and while things are generally amicable, we’re having some major disagreements about whether it’s okay for our two young children, ages three and one, to sleep over at my house. We both want what’s best for our kids, but my wife says that because the kids are so young, they shouldn’t be separated from their mother, and that doing so would interfere with the mother-child relationship. I say that not letting them spend as much time with me as they do with their mother would interfere with the father-child relationship, which would be just as bad, and could end up causing more problems than it solves. Who’s right?
A: Assuming that there’s no history of violence or abuse in your family (specifically involving you)–and if there were, you probably wouldn’t be writing for advice—you are.
Over the past few decades, dozens of researchers have tried to answer the same general question you and your wife are asking: What type of parenting plan is best for children whose parents have separated? When you factor out the politically motivated “research” (the kind where the people conducting a study are looking for data to support their personal beliefs), the consensus is very clear: “Overall the children in shared parenting families had better outcomes on measures of emotional, behavioral, and psychological well-being, as well as better physical health and better relationships with their fathers and their mothers, benefits that remained even when there were high levels of conflict between their parents,” according to Linda Nielsen, a researcher at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
Many researchers have also tried to answer the very specific question you and your wife are struggling with: Is it okay for very young children so spend overnights at their father’s house? And again, the consensus is very clear: “There is no evidence to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers,” writes Richard Warshak, a researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Warshak’s recent article, “Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report” (published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law) was endorsed by more than 100 researchers and practitioners.
As I’ve mentioned in this column, new mothers and fathers have almost identical nurturing instincts, responding to and caring for their infants in the same ways. But over time, parenting skills are learned on the job. I’ve also talked a lot about fathers’ very important role in their children’s development—a role that starts even before the child’s birth and that is no less important than the mother’s.
It follows, then, that as you say, father-child relationships are just as important as mother-child relationships. And the best way to support those relationships is to make sure a child spends as close-to-equal time with each parent as possible. As Warshak puts it, “Such arrangements allow each parent to learn about the child’s individual needs and to hone parenting skills most appropriate for each developmental period.”
So how much time should each of you spend with your children? 50/50 is, of course, ideal. But depending on your and your soon-to-be-ex’s work schedules and other things going on in your life, that may not be possible. The key is going to be for the two of you to work together to come up with a flexible plan that works for both of you and that gives your children plenty of time with each of you. Given that you said the magic words, “We both want what’s best for our kids,” I have no doubt that you’ll succeed.
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