Critique of Tornello & Emery’s study

Posted on August 8, 2013 by


by Robert Whiston 9th Aug 2013

Parts of the internet were buzzing last week with news of yet another “study” reputedly showing that there is no significant benefit to be derived from shared parenting.
The source of this attention was a paper entitled:

“Overnight Custody Arrangements, Attachment, and Adjustment Among Very Young Children”

(Ref: Wiley On-line Library – Tornello – 2013 – Journal of Marriage and Family).

Ostensibly co-written by Tornello, Emery, Rowen, Potter, Ocker and Xu, we are however, reliably informed, that its principal author (the eminence grise) was actually Robert Emery, who is well known for his harsh views towards shared parenting.

One is hesitant to give further public airing to a study that is viewed by some to be both unethical (in picking on racial minorities and low-income families), and lacking in rigour. We may be wrong but some of the measures – and the premise for their use – seem unsophisticated if not unrelated to real life.
The authors (Emery et al) ask – as if they are completely unaware of the damaging ‘outcomes’ single mother custody has on many children – why those in favour of ‘shared parenting’ demand a justification from the single-mother-custody camp for maintaining their position. They prefer to ignore evidence that at every socio-economic level. single-mother-custody is and continues to be, a disaster.

The reasons for this consternation are many fold;

  • firstly, it will no doubt get far more publicity than it deserves;
  • secondly, in the text it repeatedly cites Jennifer McIntosh and thus it falls into the Commissariat of misguided academics and ideolgue reformers where parents’ interests are of little interest or of no import;
  • thirdly, it is in the opinion of some, scholastically poor and represents a rearguard action against the flow of events.

A few of the many misgivings become obvious when reading the short summary shown here:-

  • “Large numbers of infants and toddlers have parents who live apart due to separation, divorce, or non-marital / non-cohabiting childbearing, yet this important topic, especially the controversial issue of frequent overnights with non-residential parents, is understudied.
  • The authors analysed data from the ‘Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study’, a longitudinal investigation of children born to primarily low-income, racial / ethnic minority parents that is representative of 20 US cities with populations over 200,000.
  • Among young children whose parents lived apart, 6.9% of infants (birth to age 1) and 5.3% of toddlers (ages 1 to 3) spent an average of at least 1 overnight per week with their non-resident parent.
  • An additional 6.8% of toddlers spent 35% – 70% of ‘overnights’ with non-resident parents. Frequent overnights, or sleepovers, were significantly associated with attachment insecurity among infants, but the relationship was less clear for toddlers. Attachment insecurity predicted adjustment problems at ages 3 and 5, but frequent overnights were not directly linked with adjustment problems at older ages.”

Anyone who has studied this subject will immediately spot the blatant weaknesses which will give any results a skewed effect, namely, fragile families; primarily low-income families; racial / ethnic minority.

For a secure attachment the majority of experts advocate frequent ‘contact’ including ‘sleepovers’ with both parents when children are infants and toddlers. Reciprocally, secure attachment develop in both parents towards their very young children.

Only a minority of attachment researchers agree with this perspective (Stroufe & McIntosh,  2011) and only three investigations were located in support of this contrary view , ie McIntosh [as one might expect], Solomon/George,  and Pruett).

Notwithstanding this, Emery and company, Marsha Pruett and friends are actually not opponents of sleepovers (overnighting) for infants and toddlers. Only one study, by Marsha Pruett and her colleagues, reports data from both parents and studied children who formed attachments to both parents before the separation (see Annex 1 below).

As one academic put it:

  • “Other experts highlight the importance of multiple attachment figures in child development and maintain that caretaking in multiple contexts promotes each parent’s bond with his or her very young child (cites only 3: Kelly, Lamb, Warshak).”

One can’t cite one feature as ‘the most alarming’ because there are too many of them. However, one does stand out. Children with frequent overnights at age 3 had more positive behavior at age 5 than the other kids. And here, on page 882, is how Emery & Co “erases” that data:

  • • “Although we do not want to dismiss this result, we do not want to over interpret it. We are cautious about the possibility of chance results, because we did not predict this result and only one of the 28 repressions was other than attachment security was significant.”

So in effect Emery is saying that whenever researchers get a result that they did not predict, they should hit the “alt delete” button ! !

Emery, one fears, is misleading readers into believing there were big differences, when in actual fact there were almost none. it cannot be emphasised enough that he is focusing on families who are not at all representative of the families involved in the shared custody / shared parenting debates and legal statutes.

Emery’s parents are typical only of a minority parents in US inner cities – defined as poor, uneducated, not married, with children from more than one father, and with high rates of incarceration resulting from drug / alcohol abuse.

Similarly, in citing the McIntosh study, one has to bear in mind that 90% of the infants’ parents in her study had never been married, and 30% had never even lived together. Emery does not make this crystal clear.

Thus, it stretches the reader’s credulity for Emery & Co to even refer to these parents as having “custody” arrangements. It is a joke, a misnomer.

A rate 70% of infant children living with their fathers is unprecedented even in the Shangri-La custody world of a Sweden or Denmark. The answer Is, of course, the high level ‘crack addicted’ mothers who being incarcerated cannot possibly take care of their children. That, we are reliably informed by our American contacts is why this sub-set has fathers contact and custody rates at the 70% level.

The “Fragile Families” study is exactly that; it gathers data only from these doomed families. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Emery writing about these families if he describes them as such, but to try to build a case about ‘sleepovers’ and mother attachments from these data is, in the eyes of many, wholly unethical (see


Annex 1

Richard Warshak
Only one study, by Marsha Pruett and her colleagues, reports data from both parents and studied children who formed attachments to both parents before the separation. One and a half years after the separation children whose parents shared overnights showed superior adjustment ratings by mothers and by fathers on a measure of social problems. When analyzed by age, children who were between 4 and 6 years old when overnights began had fewer problems than children without overnights. Children between 2 and 3 years old showed neither more nor fewer problems when overnights were shared when compared to children with daytime only contactswith their fathers. The investigators conclude that the effect of overnights must be considered along with other factors that affect child welfare such as the consistency of the weekly schedule,the quality of parent-child relationships, and exposure to parental conflict.
The most methodologically sound study at Yale Universityis part of an ongoing project. This study assessed 132 children ages two to six whose divorced and never married parents had separated. Of these, 31% spent one overnight a week with their fathers, 44% more than one and 25% none. For the two to four years olds, the overnighters were no different from nonovernighters in respect to sleep problems, anxiety, aggression or social withdrawal. They were, however, less persistent in completing tasks. According to their fathers, but not their mothers, the overnighters were more irritable. Overall then, the
differences were small. For the four to six year olds, however, the overnighters had fewer problems than the other children –especially the girls. As the researchers conclude “Overnights did not benefit or cause distress to the toddlers and benefited the 4 to 6 year olds.”

Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904 (

∗American Institutes for Research, 1000 Thomas Jefferson St., NW, Washington, DC20007.

∗∗Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA22904.

Key Words: attachment, child custody, child outcomes, divorce, Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, non-residential parents

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