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Equal Parenting and the Quality of Parent-Child Attachments

The Link Between Quantity of Time and Quality of Parent-Child Relationships

Although the term, "shared parenting" is usually used to describe arrangements where parents share child care responsibilities following divorce as much as possible, the notion of "equal parenting" refers to parenting arrangements after divorce where parents seek to fairly and equally divide their post-divorce responsibilities toward their children. Although shared parenting provides a number of benefits to children, it is equal parenting that is the optimal arrangement for most children of divorce. This includes children caught in the middle of high parental conflict. Recent research has shown that conflict is reduced in equal parenting households, from the perspective of both children (Fabricius, 2011) and parents (Bauserman, 2012), and in cases where inter-parental conflict is not reduced, equal parenting seems to ameliorate most of the negative effects of such conflict on children (Fabricius, 2011).

Child development experts have written that psychologically, the quality of attachment relationships is a major factor associated with the well-being of very young children. Thus some believe that the quality of parent-child relationships counts for much more than merely quantity of time that children spend with each parent after divorce. But children form close bonds with those who care for them, in their first year of life and beyond. This suggests that quantity of contact is at least as important as quality.

I would emphasize that quality of relationships is largely dependent on having a sufficient quantity of time to develop and nurture those primary relationships. Equal parental responsibility provides a context and climate for the continuation or development of high quality parent-child relationships, allowing both parents to remain authoritative, responsible, involved, attached, emotionally available, supportive, and focused on children’s day-to-day lives. Attachment bonds are formed through mutual participation in daily routines, including bedtime and waking rituals, transitions to and from school, and extracurricular and recreational activities. There is a direct correlation between quantity of time and quality of parent-child relationships, as high quality relationships between parents and children are not possible without sufficient, routine time to develop and sustain a quality relationship. And children’s adjustment is furthered by primary relationships with both mothers and fathers (Fabricius et al, 2011). For children, primary attachment bonds are not possible within the constraints of “access” or "visitation."

The idea that children form primary bonds with only one primary parent, espoused by some child psychologists, is reflected in comments such as, “children have one primary attachment figure, the person they prefer to offer them comfort in times of anxiety or pain.” Those who promote such a view cut off the possibility that children develop multiple primary attachments, meaning that they are secure in turning to more than one person (usually equally to the mother and father) to offer them comfort in times of anxiety or pain, and also to share times of joy. Clearly, when both parents are involved, attached and influential in children’s growth and development, children form primary attachment bonds with both parents.

Quality of parent-child attachments is also largely dependent on the well-being of parents. Parent well-being is furthered with equal or shared parenting, as neither parent is threatened with the loss of his or her children (Bauserman, 2012). The highest rate of depression among adults is among parents who have a dependent child but are unable to maintain a meaningful relationship with that child.

I am persuaded, by the weight of the scientific evidence, that equal parenting is a viable option to the present destructive adversarial "winner-take-all" “primary parent”divorce system, for both young and older children, and for those in high conflict as well as cooperative households. Bauserman's (2012) meta-analysis of 50 studies shows that parental conflict goes down with joint custody. He found that in almost all areas of comparison, joint custody was associated with better parental adjustment rates.

Quality of relationships with children are compromised not only in cases where a parent feels disenfranchised as a non-residential parent, but also in situations in which a parent is overwhelmed by sole custodial and caregiving responsibility for his or her children. The constraints of traditional “access” relationships are well documented; closeness, warmth, and mutual understanding are elusive when parenting within the constraints of thin slices of time. Meaningful relationships are developed and sustained through emotional connectedness, and this is made possible through the emotional stability and security of meaningful (fair and equal) parenting time. At the same time, quality of parent-child relationships is enhanced when parents do not feel burdened or overwhelmed by the demands of sole parental responsibility; studies have consistently reported that joint custody parents report significantly less burden and stress in their lives than sole custody/primary residence parents, as sole responsibility for day-to-day attention to the child’s needs is not placed on either the mother or the father, resulting in better quality parent-child relationships, although it comes as no surprise that the highest and lowest levels of parental satisfaction with parenting arrangements after divorce are found in sole custody / primary residence families: custodial or primary residential parents report the highest levels of satisfaction with parenting after divorce arrangements while non-custodial/non-residential parents report the lowest. Between these extremes lies equal parenting, where both mothers and fathers report satisfaction. The marked imbalance in parental satisfaction levels between primary residential and equal parenting arrangements does not bode well for the exercise of parental rights and responsibilities after divorce, as one parent remains at a significant disadvantage in regard to quality of life and well-being. Parental quality of life is an important and significant determinant of the quality of parent-child relationships; optimally, both parents’ interests vis-à-vis their children should be satisfied.

Bauserman, R. (2012). "A meta-analysis of parental satisfaction, adjustment, and conflict in joint custody and sole custody following divorce," Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 53, 464-488.

Fabricius, W.V. et al (2011). “Parenting time, parent conflict, parent-child relationships, and children’s physical health.” In Kuehnle, K. & Drozd, L. (Eds.), Parenting Plan Evaluations: Applied Research for the Family Court. New York: Oxford University Press.

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