‘Consensus Report’ – short summary of Warshak’s paper

Posted on May 10, 2014 by


Social Science and ‘Parenting Plans’ for Young Children: A Consensus Report

 by Dr. Richard Warshak University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

(this paper has the support of over 110 respected researchers and foremost practitioners worldwide)

Short summary, pub. 2014

(The full version can be found at https://sharedparenting.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/45/)

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’ [sleepovers] 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 [i.e. sleepovers], 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

Keywords: child custody, children’s best interests, joint custody, overnights, shared parenting


One hundred and ten researchers and practitioners have read, provided comments, and offered revisions to this article. They endorse this article’s conclusions and recommendations, although they may not agree with every detail of the literature review. Their names and affiliations are listed in the Appendix.

Social science provides a growing and sophisticated fund of knowledge about the needs of young children, the circumstances that best promote their optimal development, and the individual differences among children regarding their adaptability to different circumstances, stress, and change. Consequently, research focused

on children whose parents never married, or whose parents separated or divorced, should inform guidelines to advance the welfare and define the best interests of those children; indeed, policymakers and practitioners in family law look to that research for such information.

But the 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.

Scientific approaches to a literature review aim for a balanced, accurate account of established knowledge and of unresolved issues that require further investigation. When there are discrepancies among findings, scientists strive to understand the reason for the discrepancies, and to assess the strength of the research designs and methods. By nature, scientific knowledge is incomplete; thus, not all findings and conclusions are equally trustworthy. Hence the need for balanced, accurate reviews.

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.

With respect to critical thinking about research, Meltzoff (1998) writes the following:

  • “Research shows” is one of the favorite expressions of psychologists who are called on by the media to express their professional opinions on a wide range of topics, who are asked to consult with or testify before lawmakers about social issues that affect public welfare, or who are relied on to give expert counsel to other health service providers or to educators. Research psychologists carry a heavy burden of responsibility for assuring the accuracy of their claims about their results. In turn, psychologists who cite or apply the research findings of others share their responsibility. They have an obligation to use their critical reading and evaluation skills in reviewing a study before they cite it as evidence that supports a point of view and before they apply the findings in their clinical work.” (p. 9).

The purposes for this document are to provide the family court system—including lawmakers, mediators, decision-makers, parents, guardians ad litem, child custody evaluators, and therapists – with an overview of the research on parenting plans for children under the age of four years whose parents live apart, and to provide empirically supported guidelines that reflect a consensus among leading researchers and practitioners about the implications of that research for policy and practice. It is not possible in the limited space here to offer a comprehensive review and analysis of that literature, although many published research articles and scholarly literature reviews are discussed.

Richard A. Warshak prepared the draft of this consensus document. The endorsers reviewed the draft and offered suggestions that were incorporated into the final manuscript. It is important to acknowledge that every endorser may not agree with every detail of the literature review. The endorsers are an international group of highly accomplished researchers and practitioners.

This interdisciplinary group includes prominent representatives from the fields of early child development, clinical and forensic psychology, psychiatry, sociology, social work, and counseling. Many head their university departments, edit professional journals, and have served in leadership positions in professional associations.

Certain events raised awareness of the need for this consensus statement on parenting plans for young children. Advocates are promoting a report issued by an Australian government agency (McIntosh, Smyth, & Kelaher, 2010) as a basis for decisions regarding parenting plans for children of preschool age and younger. Accounts of the report appearing in the media, in professional seminars, in legislative briefs, and in court directly contradict the actual data, overlook results that support opposite conclusions, and mislead their audience.

A “background paper” describing the Australian report, posted on the Internet (McIntosh & the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health, 2011), illustrates all three characteristics. We give brief examples here followed by a more complete review below.

An example of contradicting the actual data is seen in the following quote, into which we have inserted the actual statistical means from McIntosh et al. (2010, p. 133, Figures 4–5) to show how the description contradicts the findings. “Babies under two years who lived one or more overnights a week with both parents [M ! 2.5] were. . .more irritable. . .than babies who had less [M ! 2.2] or no [M ! 2.6] overnight time away from their primary caregiver” (p.2). (Note that the irritability score for babies with no overnights, that is, with daytime only contacts, is slightly higher than the score for babies who spent one or more nights per week with their other parent.)

An example of selective reporting of other findings occurs in the following statement: “the only other study of young infants in overnight care [was] conducted by Solomon and George” (McIntosh & the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health, 2011, p. 2). We discuss below the other studies of young infants in overnight care that were available in 2011.

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.

Discussions of parenting plans for young children in normal situations concern three main issues.

  • First, should young children’s time be concentrated predominantly under the care and supervision of one parent, or should their time be more evenly divided between parents? The professional literature and the law variously label as shared or joint, physical or residential custody, (as distinguished from sole physical custody) divisions of a child’s time between homes that have no greater disparity than 65%–35%.
  • Second, should young children spend nights in each parent’s home, or should they sleep in the same home every night? Nearly all shared physical custody schedules include overnights, but not all children who spend overnights in both homes spend at least 35% time in each home.
  • Third, if a parent is designated with the status of a young child’s primary parent, are the benefits to the child of involvement with the other parent diminished or erased if the parents disagree about the parenting plan, or if one or both parents feel great discomfort or hostility toward the other?

Different answers to these three questions reflect different assumptions about the roots of parent–child relationships, and about the nature of contact necessary to secure healthy parent–child relationships.

At the outset we want to underscore that our recommendations apply in normal circumstances. They do not extend to parents with major deficits in how they care for their children, such as parents who neglect or abuse their children, and those from whom children would need protection and distance even in intact families. Also, our recommendations apply to children who have relationships with both parents. If a child has a relationship with one parent and no prior relationship with the other parent, or a peripheral, at best, relationship, different plans will serve the goal of building the relationship versus strengthening and maintaining an existing relationship.