I’ve written before about the heated debate surrounding overnight parenting time for very young children, and the question of how much is too much.  The topic continues to serve as a point for debate among social science researchers, mental health professionals, and family law practitioners–not to mention separating and divorcing parents.

So imagine my surprise when the February issue of the American Psychological Association’s journal, Psychology, Public Policy, and the Law, included an article purporting to have reached a final consensus on the issue.

Such, at least, is the claim.

(I confess that I’ve delayed blogging on this article for several months, hoping the rest of the family law blogosphere would provide some thoughts on how to approach it.  Unfortunately, it seems to be receiving only limited coverage.)

Dr. Warshak and the Consensus Report

Dr. Richard A. Warshak’s Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report, (full, pre-publication version here), purports to represent a consensus of 110 “researchers and practitioners” on parenting plans for young children.  The abstract for Warshak’s article reads:

Two central issues addressed in this article are the extent to which young children’s time should be spent predominantly in the care of the same parent or divided more evenly between both parents, and whether children under the age of 4 should sleep in the same home every night or spend overnights in both parents’ homes. A broad consensus of accomplished researchers and practitioners agree that, in normal circumstances, the evidence supports shared residential arrangements for children under 4 years of age whose parents live apart from each other. Because of the well-documented vulnerability of father–child relationships among never-married and divorced parents, the studies that identify overnights as a protective factor associated with increased father commitment to child rearing and reduced incidence of father drop-out, and the absence of studies that demonstrate any net risk of overnights, policymakers and decision makers should recognize that depriving young children of overnights with their fathers could compromise the quality of developing father-child relationships. Sufficient evidence does not exist to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers. The theoretical and practical considerations favoring overnights for most young children are more compelling than concerns that overnights might jeopardize children’s development.

Dr. Warshak’s consensus, though, may leave a bit to be desired, for while the many reviewers “[E]ndorse this article’s conclusions and recommendations…[they] may not agree with every detail of the literature review.”  Beyond the somewhat diaphanous nature of Warshak’s consensus, parts of his article feel unnecessarily ad hominem:

[T]he road from laboratories to legislatures and family law courtrooms is hazardous—fraught with potential for misunderstandings, skewed interpretations, logical errors, even outright misrepresentations. The hazards can be traced, in large measure, to differences between science and advocacy.

Advocacy, for those who were unclear, is undesirable:

Advocacy approaches are recognizable by certain core features: Advocates select literature for the purpose of promoting a particular agenda, and ignore or minimize findings that fail to support the desired conclusions; they distort findings toward the advocate’s position; and they use a variety of polemics, loose logic, and emotional appeals to build a persuasive case.

But lest we miss the point, Warshak singles out Australian researcher Jennifer McIntosh as an example of this advocacy-over-science approach, citing her three times before truly honing in on his target:

Advocates’ efforts against overnight parenting time for preschool children have generated confusion and uncertainty about where the scientific community stands on these issues. This document, begun in January 2012, is an attempt to stem the tide of this misinformation before this advocacy becomes enshrined in professional practice and family law.

Still, Warshak’s report can’t (and shouldn’t) be ignored, as it stresses important concerns as well as areas for further research.

Agreeing to Disagree: The Association of Family and Conciliation Court’s Reply

But Warshak isn’t alone in claiming a new research consensus on the topic.  The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts issued its own set on “consensus points” on parenting time and young children in its 2014 Think Tank Report on shared parenting (full, pre-publication version available here).  While also enlightening, the AFCC’s consensus points prove significantly more modest the those advocated by Warshak.

Consensus Point 4. Infancy is an important time of rapid growth and foundational development. During this time, sensitive caregiving is critical to maximize the child’s immediate and long-term well-being. Special consideration needs to be given to meeting young children’s developmental needs.

Consensus Point 5. Children benefit from parents sharing in their upbringing throughout their life span, where appropriate, including in the earliest stages of life.

Consensus Point 6. When there is a dispute over a young child’s care, decision makers (including parents) should consider all relevant factors. No single factor trumps the influence and importance of the aggregate.

While both reports are important reading for practitioners, the lesson here may be that we’re further from agreement than Warshak suggests.

Theses issues will likely serve as fruitful subjects for further research.  Thankfully, for those interested in further reading, Robert Hughes at DivorceScience.org, has a great list of recently published articles as well as his own thoughts on the two, competing reports.

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