Mom instilled a love of music in me at an early age. When I was three years old, she gave me a small record player with a couple of small red plastic disks especially for kids, and a few 78 rpm 10” shellac Columbia records. My favorite, a record played so often that I nearly wore out the grooves, was Tell Me A Story, written by Terry Gilkyson and sung by Jimmy Boyd and Frankie Laine. (For the CD and mp3 generations unfamiliar with pre-digital record grooves, read Wikipedia’s entry for Gramophone record).
Junior pleads to his father, “Tell me a story then I’ll go to bed.” Dad relaxing after a hard day, tells his version of events, “Oh worry, worry, weary ends my day/Comes the time to go home, without my raise in pay/Home by the fire where a man can just relax/Slippers there by the chair, not a worry, not a care/Then along comes Junior swinging his little axe.” Junior persists. Eventually Dad relents, only to have Junior interrupt his tale. Dad: “Once upon a time, I remember long ago.” Junior: “Don’t go back in history, your memory’s kinda slow.”
Our society holds a curious double standard when it comes to encouraging hands-on shared parenting. For instance, we want dads involved with their infants and toddlers—cuddling in the morning, soothing in the middle of the night, diapering, feeding, bathing, putting to bed, and, yes, telling junior bedtime stories. But when parents separate, some people think that young children need 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 mom’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 parents separate only get to see their dads two hours at a time, two days a week. Hurriedly loading and unloading the child in the car and driving to and from dad’s home at the end of a work day is hardly conducive to laying a foundation for a comforting and secure relationship with dad.
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.
Where does science stand on these issues? To find out, 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 appear in Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report published by the American Psychological Association in its prestigious journal, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. The report carries the endorsement of 110 of the world’s leading researchers and practitioners.
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, and 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 work night shifts 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 for a 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. Scholars who study the benefits of children’s relationships with both parents find no empirical support for the belief that mothers are more necessary or play a more unique role than do fathers in their infants’ and toddlers’ lives. In short, after their separation, both parents should maximize the time they spend with their young children, including the sharing of overnight parenting time.
Naturally, 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. The fact that some parents are negligent, abusive, or grossly deficient in their parenting—parents whose children would need protection from them even in intact families—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 AM 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?