STK - Divorce and Separation concept

Custody and parent-time decisions are usually made by using what is called “the best interest of the child” standard.

This standard is intended to guard children from conflict and abuse, and to promote stability, but because it is vague, and not based on empirical evidence, it is susceptible to influences of what Edward Kruk, a social work researcher, describes in the The American Journal of Family Therapy as “judicial biases and preferences, professional self-interest, gender politics, the desire of a parent to remove the other parent from the child’s life, and the wishes of a parent who is found to be a danger to the child.” He argues that “a more child-focused approach to child custody determination is needed to reduce harm to children in the divorce transition and ensure their well-being.”

What does the research show about the well-being of children of divorce? That shared physical parenting is the best custody determination for children. (This excludes cases of abuse, neglect and parents with no prior relationship.) So why isn’t this the norm in most cases? It is because of woozles and zombies. Woozles are myths and misrepresentations of research that are not supported by evidence, but because they keep being repeated, they are believed to be true.

"To summarize briefly, the words 'woozling' and 'woozles' come from the children’s story, 'Winnie the Pooh,'" Linda Nielsen, psychologist and expert on shared parenting, explained in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage.

"In the story the little bear, Winnie, dupes himself and his friends into believing that they are being followed by a scary beast — a beast he calls a woozle. Although they never actually see the woozle, they convince themselves it exists because they see its footprints next to theirs as they walk in circles around a tree. The footprints are, of course, their own. But Pooh and his friends are confident that they are onto something really big. Their foolish behavior is based on faulty 'data' — and a woozle is born."

Nielsen continued, “Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (2014) wrote about a similar concept that he called a ‘zombie,’ — a belief that ‘everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of a zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die. And it does a lot of harm.’”

Some common woozles and zombies of shared parenting, followed by what research actually shows, include:

1. Children want to live with only one parent and to have one home. Shared parenting is not worth the hassle.

When adult children of divorce were asked, they said having a relationship with both parents was worth any hassle they experienced in moving between homes, according to Nielsen's writings on myths of shared residential custody, 

2. Young children have one primary attachment figure, the mother, with whom they bond more strongly. Given this, it is hurtful for infants to spend any overnights with the other parent in the first year of life.

The truth is that infants form different, but strong attachments to both parents and that “there is no evidence to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers," according to Nielsen.

3. Where there is high conflict between the parents, children do better with sole custody. Shared parenting only increases the conflict and puts the children in the middle.

Conflict remains higher in sole- than in shared-custody families. Most children are not exposed to more conflict in shared-parenting families. Maintaining strong relationships with both parents helps diminish the negative impact of the parents’ conflict.

4. Shared parenting only works with those who agree to it, and is only successful for a small, cooperative group of parents who have little conflict.

According to Nielsen, the research shows that even if shared parenting was originally mandated, it leads to better adjustment for the children and less long-term conflict between the parents.

Sadly, woozles and zombies can distort the facts about best practices for custody arrangements, but the research evidence is clear and irrefutable that a shared parenting model is truly optimal for families.

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Michelle Jones, LCSW, graduated from Brigham Young University in Clinical Social Work.  She is the Director of Concordia Families, a clinic specializing in family-court involved therapy and reunification services. She has worked in Utah in several treatment centers, helping individuals and families for 17 years. She serves as a member of the executive committee of the National Parents Organization, whose mission is to promote shared parenting and family law reform.

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