It’s not the amount of contact it’s the quality

family law

The other day I read with interest the results of a new study into the involvement of fathers in early child-rearing, and its effect upon the behaviour of children. The study, by a team at the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit in the Nuffield Department of Population Health, concluded:

“Psychological and emotional aspects of paternal involvement in children’s early upbringing, particularly how new fathers see themselves as parents and adjust to the role, rather than the quantity of direct involvement in childcare, is associated with positive behavioural outcomes in children.”

In other words, the attitudes of fathers towards fatherhood was of more significance to positive behaviour in children than the amount of their direct involvement in the childcare.

Now, the study was not concerned with families where the parents had separated, and it was just about children’s behaviour not their welfare generally, but it did bring to mind the old piece of advice for parents seeking contact with their children: it’s not about the amount of contact you have with your children, it’s about the quality of it. To put it another way, so long as you have a reasonable amount of time with your children, concentrate your energies on making that time as beneficial for the children as possible, not upon increasing it simply to achieve parity with the other parent.

As I’ve indicated, this piece of advice is nothing new. However, it may be new to those who have recently become a separated parent, and even for those who haven’t, it bears repeating.

As a family lawyer I have seen first-hand protracted disputes between parents over arrangements for their children, in which the ‘non-custodial’ parent (i.e. the parent with whom the children presently spend less of their time) is desperately seeking full equality of time with their children. I have also seen many reports of such cases. Sometimes the non-custodial parent may be doing this because they genuinely believe that equal shared care is the best thing for their children (and they may be right), while other they are doing it simply to ‘get back’ at the other parent. And sometimes they may be doing it for ideological reasons – i.e. they simply believe that it must be best for all children.

Whatever their motivation, such disputes can be extremely damaging for all concerned, especially the children, and often that damage may outweigh any benefit that the children may get from spending more time with the non-custodial parent. Arguing over what can in the end be just a small difference in the amount of time the children spend with each parent can be not only pointless but also time-consuming, stressful and expensive. It can also of course destroy what may be left of the relationship between the parents, to the severe detriment of the children.

Think about it. Whether we like it or not, we still live in a society where one parent, usually the father, is the sole or primary breadwinner. This inevitably means that the children will spend more of their time with the other parent. In other words, ‘unequal parenting’ is the norm, and doesn’t automatically mean that the child suffers harm. My own childhood may have been from a different time, but it was certainly my experience that I spent the vast majority of it in the company of my mother rather than my father, and I didn’t suffer from it. In fact, for a time my father worked nights and I hardly saw him for weeks on end. That may not have been ideal, but it must still be the reality for many children who have a parent that does shift work. Unequal parenting is normal.

And then one comes across and hears many stories of cases in which the care of the children is shared equally, only for the children to actually spend their time with the non-custodial parent’s new partner as the actual non-custodial parent is out at work for much of the time. Obviously, it is pointless to seek more contact just to end up in that situation.

There is also an argument that having less time with your child may make it easier to make that time ‘special’. The classic example of this is the father using his contact time to take his son to a football match. Such time can do wonders to improve the bond between the child and the parent.

Now, I’m a family lawyer, not an expert on child welfare and upbringing (although my experience obviously does give me some expertise in that area). I understand there can be no absolute rules as all children and their needs are different. However, my experience does, I think, make me an expert on the damage that protracted disputes over arrangements for children can cause to families – and especially, of course, the children. All I am saying, therefore, is that any non-custodial parent seeking contact, or more contact, with their children should think carefully about just how much contact will be of the greatest benefit to their children, before embarking upon a battle with the other parent for more time, a conflict in which the children will inevitably be the first casualties.

You can read more about the study here.

 Image by nathanmac87 via Flickr

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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17 comments

Aaron Knox - November 30, 2016 at 1:12am

Mr Bolch,
This study is focussed on families that are together, not separated ones – you even acknowledge this yourself – so as an experienced family lawyer how can you possibly use this as an argument against shared care post-separation, to effectively tell non-resident parents to back off & let the RP decide what’s best for the kids?
But since you have used it for your mantra let’s look at a few points you & the study make.
The study began in 1992, a lot has changed in social & parenting culture in 24 years.
As a study it is full of “may”, “can”, “could” statements – I’ve seen more definitives in newspaper horoscopes.
Page7, study only based on behavioural outcomes (BOs), more research needed on role of dads in identity, self esteem, emotional & social development.
P6, poorer BOs the more hours worked by dad – so the more the dad was absent, the poorer the BOs!
P6, when dads have “A SENSE OF SECURITY IN THEIR ROLE AS PARENT”, kids less likely to exhibit BPs at age 9.” How can we feel secure in our role when it can be so easily & wilfully stripped from us?
P7 dad involvement can alleviate factors such as maternal depression – regards separated families, NRP has no parental responsibilities for several days/weeks between visits while RP must do it all, possibly single-handedly.
Not all NRPs just want “parity” – we know quality & quantity often go hand in hand & that we have much more positive influence than we’re given credit for.
Have you got data to show the dad still being the main breadwinner? As I said above, there have been a lot of social changes since this study was undertaken. Even if it is still true, it’s only really valid until the kids start school when they are then away from either parent approx 7hours per day.
Your point about shift workers is kind of valid & people like oil rig workers & armed forced personnel may be away from family for months at a time but there is a stark difference between a child asking where daddy is & the answer being “work” than whatever excuse the RP can make up to make themselves feel better about depriving their kid of the love of their dad.
Your comment about less time being special is absolutely disgusting. Shall every parent in society turf their kids out for 12 days so they can then have a “special” weekend? I’ve never heard anything so patronising and absurd! It also emphasises the “Disney dad” mentality – kids need more than fun weekends with us, they benefit from us being involved in the every day “mundane” things as much as weekends.
Sincerely.

Yvie - November 30, 2016 at 10:36am

Shared care 50/50 is a start and should be the default. Care of the children during marriage can be unequal, for example, an ambitious mum who wants to pursue her career will often rely on her husband/partner to take the largest share of the care of the children. This would not be unusual, but they are together at that point and one would imagine in a reasonably harmonious relationship. Once that relationship has broken down, the father usually has to fight for the right to stay in the lives of his children. If the mother wants to move on with a new partner, then can come the difficulties. John suggests it is quality not quantity. He may have a point when buying a new set of clothes, but it is a non-starter with regards to care of the children. How would any father feel if he sees his children perhaps once a week, when a new stepfather is installed in the ex. family home and sees the children six days a week. How is a father supposed to feel when the new stepfather takes his children to the doctors, dentist, schools, attends parents evenings, etc, etc. With a hostile ex.wife, dad can find himself gradually eased out of the lives of his own children. He will know of course, that the children only have one biological father, but may feel this is of little consideration when he faces losing the closeness of his children.

JamesB - November 30, 2016 at 11:10am

re any non-custodial parent seeking contact, or more contact, with their children should think carefully about just how much contact will be of the greatest benefit to their children, before embarking upon a battle with the other parent for more time, a conflict in which the children will inevitably be the first casualties

This is something I have been through many times and your point is a cop out and nonsense. The more I see my children the happier they are.

Lars - November 30, 2016 at 1:03pm

Just to share my experience, as I am lucky enough to have a shared care, that the so called “quality time” can not be planned. Sure you can plan activities and days out, but the real quality time (in my humble opinion) is when your child will ask a question, share a laugh or a concern with you, tell you when they did at school that day, when you help for their homework etc. This can happen any time, at bed time, breakfast, diner, on the way to school. Quality time can not be planned by a lawyer or an ex however how hard they try to convince you!

spinner - November 30, 2016 at 2:02pm

So as fathers then we are expected to be around on tap as required, pay for everything and potentially sacrifice everything we have worked for in a subsequent divorce. Yeah your going to have to do better than this as what your not offering is not adequate deal and if there are a lot of males around with no kids or partner then they will spend their time destabilising society.

JamesB - November 30, 2016 at 2:27pm

A variation on the just go away but give us all your money argument, no wonder people are angry with the establishment if this is the crap they dish out.

JamesB - November 30, 2016 at 2:32pm

I am bloody pleased that I did not do as John suggested here and did fight to spend a lot of time with my children growing up and was a good time as Lars says.

Would I have got that by being nice and taking what offered by lawyers or ex? Nope.

Oh, its probably for the best and other cop out arguments on the real issues, i.e. easier to back down if the other side wont as the law is so rubbish.

The issue is courts wont do much except keep adjourning until one side back down, you suggesting to back down is a cop out and is more detrimental to the children then trying to get a decent amount of contact.

JamesB - November 30, 2016 at 2:35pm

If courts weren’t so rubbish about enforcing contact and the CSA / Cmec / cmoptions / cms didn’t reward parents for not giving contact then maybe resident parents wouldn’t be so stingy with contact and non resident parents would see their children more which is a good thing not a bad thing as John suggests.

JamesB - November 30, 2016 at 2:45pm

As others have said here and I and others have elsewhere 50:50 shared care as default should be what happens, the disenfranchisement of one side and one side winning all system we have is rubbish and as spinner says not good for society either. I also am sick of stepping around men sleeping in sleeping bags on the pavement or grass verges in the rain that is how bad it is round here homelessness at record levels and the lawyers passively encourage that by the on-going stitch-ups that family courts dish out day in day out under dodgy findings of fact and dodgy uncertain law (MCA 1973 and Children act 1989 and CSA 1992 and pension sharing act 1999, right stitch ups) its an absolute disgrace.

JamesB - November 30, 2016 at 2:49pm

Typo, child support act 1991.

JamesB - November 30, 2016 at 2:54pm

I don’t know how the politicians thought they were representing people when they wrote these dodgy laws as per the feminist lobbyists we need better law making and laws which work for men and society too and not just lesbians, many single females finding lack of marriage proposals due to these dodgy laws frustrating also.

JamesB - November 30, 2016 at 2:57pm

Two quick and easy laws, shared care 50:50 assumption, and quick and easy enforceable pre nups and everything would be fine.

If want to milk it and pay lawyers fees etc for root and branch changes instead, move to system similar to Scottish system.

JamesB - November 30, 2016 at 2:58pm

I get fed up of people telling me the system is fine when it is not.

JamesB - November 30, 2016 at 2:58pm

I get fed up of people telling me the system is fine when it so obviously is not.

yuri - December 7, 2016 at 2:01pm

It’s not the quantity of time that’s important, but the quality of the time spent with the children” is a governing cliché. However, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. You can more quality time. One does not have to replace the other.

“A growing and substantial body of research has found positive benefits correlated with shared parenting where the children live 35% to 50% of the time with both parents after their divorce. Compared to children who live with only one parent (“primary care”) and spend varying amounts of time with their nonresidential parent (almost always their father), those who live in shared parenting families (“shared care” or “joint residential custody”) generally have better outcomes in regard to: academic and cognitive development, emotional and psychological health, stress related illnesses, social behavior, and drinking, drug use, delinquent and aggression. More compelling still, the shared care children have more communicative, more enduring and more meaningful relationships with their fathers than other children of divorce. These conclusions are based on data from more than two dozen studies conducted over the past twenty years and involving approximately six thousand children from shared parenting families. All of these studies were published in peer reviewed journals and directly compared children in shared care and sole care families.” Nielsen 2012)

Further, there
is no research suggesting that children for the most part like or thrive on the one size fits all fall-back ‘80/20’ arrangement that remains so commonplace.

Studies in Australia, New Zealand and the US that asked adolescents and adults their views on living arrangements after parents’ divorce all found that the majority endorsed equal time with both of their parents.

A North American study of 344 men and 485 women who were undergraduates and whose parents had divorced ten years earlier found that 70% chose equal amounts of time with each parent as the ideal scenario in response to a vignette.

The authors pointed out that this was not an idealistic position, as 93% of those who had experienced equal time with parents endorsed the living arrangement.

It is important to note that these young people are the parents of the future many of whom will marry and separate. If attitudes are any indication of behaviour then they will not be adhering to the present common pattern of every other weekend and half the holidays with fathers.

Policy makers would be ill-advised to ignore this steadfast message from young people that they actually and ideally prefer substantive amounts of time with both parents

Yuri - December 7, 2016 at 11:35pm

Transcribed U.S comment

nationalparentsorganization.org/blog/23203-bolch-reads-a-study-sort-of

Bolch Reads A Study! Sort Of…

December 4, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

We now know that John Bolch has heard of social science. Not only that, we know he’s read a study on the social science on the influence of fathers on children’s welfare. That would be a bit more impressive if he’d draw the correct conclusions from having read the study. It would be even more impressive if the experience would spur him to read more on the subject. The man has demonstrated repeatedly that he doesn’t know the first thing about that science but nevertheless feels competent to opine on parenting and children’s welfare.

Well, John, congratulations, you’ve now read a study. Good for you. But, since your conclusions from it are at best only partly accurate, allow me to suggest that you go a step further and read Richard Warshak’s consensus paper on shared parenting that summarizes the state of the science on that topic. It’s endorsed by 110 scientists around the world working in the field, so you might find it persuasive. Stranger things have happened, at least I think they have.

The paper Bolch managed to read found among other things that what’s important to children’s welfare isn’t the gross amount of time spent by a parent with the child, but what’s actually done during that time. Generally speaking that makes sense. No interaction at all between parent and child over a long period of time is likely not better for the child than real interaction over a shorter period. There’s nothing revolutionary in that idea.

But there are problems with Bolch’s conclusions that I’d bet money the authors of the study would roll their eyes at. Most important is the fact that the research was of parents who lived with their kids. So Dad may have gone to work every day and therefore not been with his children during that time. But he was still present every day in their lives. To put it mildly, there’s a world of difference between that and divorce.

But Bolch then reaches the conclusion that the kids in the study experience the same type of parental deprivation by one parent going to work as those who don’t live with one parent. That’s one thing the researchers would, I suspect, never conclude. After all, the father who comes home after eight hours at the office and has dinner with the children, bathes them and reads them to sleep is scarcely absent from their lives. Indeed, they understand from a relatively young age that he’s their dad, his schedule takes him away during the day, but he comes home at night.

By contrast, a child, particularly a very young one, who doesn’t see his/her dad for two weeks may well suffer a profound and lasting sense of loss and abandonment. Children’s sense of time is vastly different from that of adults.

So yes, there’s such a thing as “quality time,” but the simple fact is that, in order to have that sort of meaningful parent/child time, there needs to be enough, well, time. As Susan Stewart told us years ago, every other weekend with Dad isn’t enough. He becomes a “Disneyland Dad,” more an entertainer than a parent, and loses the all-important day-to-day interaction that makes quality time possible.

Bolch hedges his bets. He never comes out and says that any amount of time for dads is sufficient because all they have to do is make it count. But, given his previous antipathy for fathers and anything that might improve their sad lot in family court, I won’t be surprised to find him doing just that in the near future. It’s the danger that misreading such a study can lead to. “It’s not the amount of time but the quality of it that matters” can easily become “minimal time for Dad is good enough, after all, it’s the quality of the time that counts.”

That would be the wrong conclusion to draw, which is where additional reading would be good for Bolch. The social science on the matter strongly indicates that, 35% is the minimum amount of parenting time required for the benefits of both parents in a child’s life to take effect. That’s squarely at odds with Bolch’s casual conclusion that the amount of time isn’t what’s important. It’s not by itself, but there needs to be enough time for its quality to redound to the benefit of kids. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and Bolch’s knowledge is small indeed.

That Bolch still hasn’t grasped certain obvious concepts about the value of both parents to children, he makes clear later in his piece. First, he frets about how difficult protracted litigation in family court can be for “all concerned.” No doubt that’s true and family lawyers should hang their heads in shame for promoting conflict.

But Bolch is none too subtle about which parent he considers to be at fault. According to his view, it’s the non-custodial one and, although he doesn’t let on about it, non-custodial parents are almost uniformly fathers.

As a family lawyer I have seen first-hand protracted disputes between parents over arrangements for their children, in which the ‘non-custodial’ parent (i.e. the parent with whom the children presently spend less of their time) is desperately seeking full equality of time with their children. I have also seen many reports of such cases. Sometimes the non-custodial parent may be doing this because they genuinely believe that equal shared care is the best thing for their children (and they may be right), while other they are doing it simply to ‘get back’ at the other parent. And sometimes they may be doing it for ideological reasons – i.e. they simply believe that it must be best for all children.

Whatever their motivation, such disputes can be extremely damaging for all concerned, especially the children, and often that damage may outweigh any benefit that the children may get from spending more time with the non-custodial parent.

See what I mean? Those pesky, inconsiderate fathers are always making trouble. If they’d just accept the crumbs offered by the mothers who are divorcing them, everything would be so much better for “all concerned, especially the children.” Somehow, in Bolch’s telling the lack of parenting time fathers receive is never the fault of the mother. His worldview doesn’t include the concept that Mom might say to Dad “You know, you’re right; Little Andy or Jenny needs us both equally, so let’s see what we can work out.” No, Dad is to take what’s offered him and like it. To do otherwise is to engage in pointless and damaging litigation.

Then there’s the old shibboleth that, since Mom did most of the care during marriage, she should get most of the parenting time afterward.

Think about it. Whether we like it or not, we still live in a society where one parent, usually the father, is the sole or primary breadwinner. This inevitably means that the children will spend more of their time with the other parent. In other words, ‘unequal parenting’ is the norm, and doesn’t automatically mean that the child suffers harm.

Perfectly true, and if divorce were the same as marriage, he’d have a point. But it’s not, so he doesn’t. The fact is that kids bond with both parents from the first weeks of life. That’s why Dad going off to work during marriage is OK. Little Andy or Jenny knows he’s their father and that they’ll see him at the end of the day. When Mom divorces Dad, however, that bond is threatened which is why divorce can be so traumatic for kids.

Again, all this is perfectly well known, just not to Bolch. I’m glad to see that he’s heard of the social science on parenting time and child well-being. Is it too much to ask him to read a bit more?

Elena - December 9, 2016 at 10:28am

Indeed, there are many fathers who have complained (to put it politely) to the other parent about not having “equal times” with their children and they don’t see why the children should reside with the mother instead. The irony is that the very same fathers are very often late to pick up the children, do not turn up if they have “better things to do” and/or don’t pay child support.

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