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What 'shared parenting' is and how it can affect kids after divorce

When Terry or Charlie Baton play a sport or have a parent-teacher conference or band concert, they know their four parents will be there. The teenage boys live in two homes about 50-50. And they are, say mom Amanda Davis and dad Shane Baton, about the best-adjusted children of divorce around.

"We agreed when we got divorced that the kids come first," said Davis.

"We divorced each other, not them," added Baton.

Davis and Baton are almost seven years into shared parenting in the wake of divorce, which makes them both trendy and unusual. Shared parenting is growing in popularity — several states already have laws creating a presumption that children will be raised by both parents post-breakup, and 20 state legislatures considered such laws last year, with varying results, although a presumption of shared parenting is very rare. Only 17 percent of custody cases result in shared parenting, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Recently, several research groups have endorsed shared parenting, which is not exactly synonymous with joint custody, since that can be legal or physical or both, said Ned Holstein, founder and acting executive director of the National Parents Organization, which vocally supports the practice. Decision-making is more equal than when one parent has legal or physical custody, too. With shared parenting, children live no less than 30 percent of the time with either parent, though it need not be a 50-50 split.

"Shared parenting is deliberately a little bit loose; we believe flexibility is needed," Holstein said. "There are many complexities to it. There are parents who on their own come to the conclusion shared parenting is the best thing for them and their children. For some, it's what the court orders. A few decades ago, parents would go in and say they want to share and the courts wouldn't do it."

More expert support

The year 2014 was a "watershed year" for shared parenting, according to Holstein. The International Council on Shared Parenting met for the first time in Bonn, Germany, and representatives from 20 countries crafted a conference statement that shared parenting should be the usual outcome of parental breakup for most kids. The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts assembled a think tank of 30 experts who reached a similar conclusion, although they had more caveats. And the Journal of the American Psychological Association published a paper, "Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report," written by University of Texas' Richard Warshak, that said shared parenting "should be the norm for parenting plans for children of all ages, including very young children." It was endorsed by 110 international experts in sociology, psychology, education and child development.

About the same time, the idea has spread that shared parenting might reduce conflict between father and mother after divorce, as long as the parents don't have negative traits and behaviors that make them unfit, such as a history of substance abuse or domestic violence. A large body of research shows kids who have strong relationships with both parents, including after divorce, are happier, do better in school, are less likely to be bullied, and are less apt to engage in delinquent acts. Teen pregnancy is also reduced.

A 2015 study out of Sweden published in the international Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that teens living in joint custody arrangements did better than those living with only one parent, but not as well as those who lived with both parents in the same home. In a news release they explained the difference: "… psychosomatic symptoms are related to stress, and living in two different homes could be stressful for children. But this might be outweighed by the positive effects of maintaining close contact with both parents."

Felicia Keiser, 21, a senior at the University of Nebraska, testified last year before her state's legislature on behalf of a shared parenting bill. She said that as a child she longed for more time with her father after her parents divorced and her mother was granted custody.

"I find it really important to have both parents if both are able and loving and nurturing of kids," she said. "… With court rulings, it should be about the children, less about the parents."

Her parents didn't get along, but she said her dad still tried to come to every event she and her siblings had in school, even though he lived an hour away. "My dad never gave up. I am grateful for that." But her graduation party was awkward, the crowd divided, a parent on each side of the room. Keiser said she's told her folks she doesn't want her upcoming wedding to be that way.

"Shared parenting is the right thing to do," said Dan Deuel of Ogden, Utah, chairman of legislative affairs for his state's chapter of the National Parents Organization. "It will benefit the children. … Family is the most important institution in the world. It transcends everything. That is why we need to protect and preserve these relationships.

"Children have a natural bond to both parents and a natural desire to have and maintain that loving bond. Both parents generally bring something to the table as far as child rearing is concerned, whether they agree or disagree, and have something valuable to contribute."

History and disagreements

The AFCC notes that fathers traditionally got sole custody until the mid-1800s, unless they were deemed "unfit" for some reason. Then courts drifted into a "tender years" doctrine that held young children needed their moms more than anyone else. In both cases, the idea was that children should have one custodial parent and children were unduly stressed if forced to move back and forth between different homes, as several studies suggested.

The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act in 1970 saw the beginning of a shift away from gender as a primary concern for awarding custody, the AFCC paper said, but still mothers typically received custody, based largely on the idea that they did most of the child-rearing tasks before the divorce and should continue to do so.

Not everyone's a fan of shared parenting as a legal presumption. Critics want protections so that abusive, neglectful or unfit parents are not awarded shared custody.

The Wall Street Journal (paywall) recently outlined some criticism by opponents: "Critics of the bills contend that they threaten to take discretion away from judges and risk giving leverage to abusive men. They also say the laws are poorly targeted because typically the only custody cases that end up in court are the ones in which former spouses are too hostile toward each other to effectively practice shared parenting anyway."

Some of the strongest opposition has come from state bar associations and from advocacy groups that deal with victims of domestic violence. They argue that judges should maintain "case-by-case discretion" to decide what's best for a child. Some also note that the hostility between some parents could prevent them from cooperating, which is necessary for shared parenting to work well.

In South Dakota in 2014, the state bar proposed statewide guidelines for judges in cases where those judges were awarding joint physical custody, according to USA Today.

Making it work

When Davis and Baton divorced in 2010 and even when they started dating other people later, they based their relationship with each other on what Terry, now 16, and Charlie, 13, needed. That's made it possible to save seats for each other at concerts and for Davis to admire the skills like canning and sewing Baton's second wife, Leslie, teaches the boys. "She's amazing and I love her," said Davis. "I want my kids to have as many people love them as possible."

They don't mark out dates in a you-get-this-holiday way, said Baton. They live near each other in Brigham City, Utah, and both see their kids almost daily. They plan around everyone's schedules, adjusting if there's a birthday or event in the extended family.

Shared parenting has been a process; they've learned to work together, said Davis.

"When you divorce, you split the house. You split the equity. You don't split the kids. We all have a good relationship — once, when I accidentally took my ex-wife's keys to work with me, my wife drove her to Ogden. I just don't understand why adults don't get past themselves for the benefit of the kids," said Baton.

Baton's own parents divorced and likely have not seen each other for 25 years, he said, but still don't get along.

Alex Trinidad of Cincinnati, Ohio, and his ex-wife didn't have shared custody initially. They argued, often through their lawyers, when they divorced seven years ago. She wanted the kids full time, he wanted an even split. Eventually, they concluded themselves that their children, now ages 12 to 16, really wanted and should have both parents.

Tell his kids they come from a broken home and one of his daughter replies, "We're not broken. We just have two homes."

"We get along well enough to make it work. We still have some disagreements. But we don't argue or hang up on each other," said Trinidad. They didn't argue in front of the kids when they were married, either, though he said that "once in a while we were a little snippy."

Both he and his ex-wife are dating, "and when my son had a wrestling match, we all sat next to each other and talked about a lot of things. Some things we keep private because our lives are no longer together. But we talk."

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