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Ground Breaking Study Marks Huge Advance For Equal Shared Parenting Scientific Justification

Article reviewed here – citation: Vowels LM, Comolli CL, Bernardi L, Chaco´n-Mendoza D, Darwiche J (2023) Systematic review and theoretical comparison of children’s outcomes in post-separation living arrangements. PLoS ONE 18(6): e0288112. 

Children’s Living Arrangements: This hugely important paper seeks to synthesize the literature on children’s outcomes across different living arrangements. This recently published interdisciplinary study pulls together research from across different disciplines.

The authors compared the living arrangements across five domains of children’s outcomes: emotional, behavioral, relational, physical, and educational. As expected, outcomes were best in nuclear families. However, in 75% of the studies, children in SPC (shared physical custody) arrangements had equal outcomes to nuclear families. LPC (lone physical custody) children? They did worse.

Rigorous selection criteria: The authors first took into consideration over 4,900 peer-reviewed papers and applying rigorous selection criteria narrowed down the number of papers for an depth analysis to 39 papers published between 2010 and 2022. (Table 2 in the paper lists all 39.) While they cited some other papers in their work, their scientific analysis omitted the most prominent advocates of equal shared parenting in the thirty-nine (such as Warshak, Nielsen, Fabricius, and many others). So, when this groundbreaking paper comes out as matter-of-factly telling us that children in shared custody families do better, we had better believe them and legislators should take note!

Social science theories jive with the data – SPC wins again!: But it was not enough just to look at papers. The analysis based on different psychological and sociological theories was most enlightening. Hypotheses were tested against the measurable data. Guess who came out on top pretty much across the board – children in SPC arrangements, that’s who!

The authors write:

Page 6: In summary, the four main hypotheses (selection hypothesis, instability hypothesis, fewer resources hypothesis, and stressful mobility hypothesis) that are supported by several major theories within psychology and sociology suggest differing outcomes across living arrangements. They also suggest several possible explanatory variables that may explain the differences in children’s outcomes across living arrangements. In the systematic review presented in the section below, we aim to compare the empirical findings against these hypotheses.

Having identified and examined the four main hypotheses, the authors then look at their selected 39 studies from the empirical peer-reviewed social sciences literature to help determine if the hypotheses are borne out by the data. In three cases, yes; in one hypothesis that favoured LPC, the data negated the anti-parent hypothesis. No surprise there!

This exceptional paper combined social science hypotheses with social science data. That’s what makes it so exciting and ever so persuasive. Now, I will extract some cogent quotes from the paper. You will see that SPC tops the charts time and time again. The legal and social policy implications are striking for their sheer simplicity. We must ask, I suggest, just why there is so much opposition in Canada to adopting policies that are so clearly in favour of children’s well-being.

I maintain that we must pursue legislation and policies that promote SPC. In that way not only will children have far better outcomes, but the cost savings in both the legal and health systems would likely be incredible.  (I should try to be less enthusiastic and persuasive. I am going to put myself out of business. LOL.)

Here are my favourite parts of the Vowels et al paper. (Headings and bolded italics are mine. Content is theirs.)

Page 11: LPC does not auger well for the future: Of the studies that directly compared SPC and LPC, 45.5% of the time children in LPC arrangements had worse behavioral and 62.5% of the time worse relational outcomes compared to SPC families.

Page 15: Nuclear and SPC about equal: Interestingly, although only a small number of studies included exclusively young children (0–7 years), all studies except one [64] showed that children in nuclear families and SPC families had equal outcomes [12, 50, 51, 60, 63]. In contrast, children in LPC families had the worst outcomes in four of the six (60.0%) studies.

Page 15-16: Ditto: There were two main conclusions regarding differences between family living arrangements and the theoretical hypotheses that could be drawn from the review. First, in line with the research showing that divorce hurts children [2, 3, 5, 8, 14], children in nuclear families consistently showed equal or better outcomes compared to post-separation living arrangements. There were no studies in which children in nuclear families had worse outcomes than children in other family arrangements. This finding is consistent with the fewer resources and instability hypotheses. However, in 75% of the studies, children in SPC did equally well compared to children in nuclear families. This suggests that it is not the instability resulting from divorce or separation per se that leads to worse outcomes for children. In many cases, it is possible to achieve comparable outcomes for children if parents can agree to and successfully have an SPC arrangement. Therefore, the results are the most consistent with the fewer resources hypothesis which suggests that children in LPC arrangements have fewer economic and relationship resources compared to children in SPC arrangements, especially in nuclear families.

Page 16-17: Post-separation contact with both parents is essential:children in SPC arrangements had comparable outcomes to children in nuclear families in three fourth of the time for at least some analyses, suggesting that maintaining a connection with both parents following separation or divorce can buffer against the potential negative impact of union dissolution.

Page 17: Enlightened social policy implies an SPC arrangement: In cases where a couple chooses to end their relationship, the results suggest that policies should support families to choose and maintain an SPC arrangement, and in many cases, it is possible to achieve comparable outcomes to nuclear families.

Need I say more? The data is in. The die is cast. Canada must adopt a rebuttable presumption for Equal Shared Parenting. It’s the only solution that makes sense in the vast majority of separating and divorcing couples.

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