Considerations for determining parenting arrangements: factors that influence outcomes

Section 2: Time Spent Parenting

In all families, children do best when they have two positively involved parents who spend quality time with them. In separated or divorced families, parenting arrangements need to provide children with as much time as reasonably and practically possible with each parent - taking into account the best interests as well as needs and characteristics of children, the characteristics of the parents and their parenting, and the wider environment (e.g., their social supports). However, research indicates that the amount of time itself does not lead to positive outcomes. What matters more for child outcomes and adjustment from the research appears to be experiences that children have with their parents – both in terms of the parent-child interactions (i.e., the quality of the parenting) as well as they type of activity (i.e., parenting across different activities of daily living). To maximize the potential impact of positive interactions, children need to spend sufficient time with their parents. While research suggests that there is no set amount of parenting time that works for all children and parents, there are factors that should be considered when determining, on an individual basis, what will work best for the children and family. Thus, time spent with parents is one important factor that needs to be considered alongside of the others discussed in this paper.

How Much Time is Ideal?

The current consensus is that it is in children’s best interests to spend as much quality time as possible and practical with each parent given their individual and family characteristics. There is also general agreement that there is not one arrangement that works for all children. “As much time as possible” does not necessarily equate to 60/40 or 50/50 shared care for all families. Research has not provided a definitive answer on the specific number of hours or the frequency of parent-child visits needed for positive child adjustment and outcomes. Rather, the best arrangements are determined on a case-by-case basis (Cognetti & Chmil, 2014; Cyr, 2007; Miller, 2014; McIntosh, Pruett & Kelly 2014) considering and balancing the multiple factors important to child adjustment (see below for factors affected by time and Section Three for more information on general child and family factors) (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Cashmore, Parkinson & Taylor, 2008; Carlson, 2006).

One consideration in determining the amount of time that parents spend with their children includes the importance of having parents engage in activities of daily living with children (e.g., morning and evening routines, having opportunities to teach and) rather than just being a “Disneyland parent” following a separation or divorce (Stewart, 1999; see Section 3 for more detail). Thus, rather than a specific amount of time, children benefit from having a relationship with parents that include a variety of different parenting behaviours as well as experiences and activities (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Ulveseter, Breivik & Thuen, 2010). Sufficient time and opportunities for these various parenting activities benefit both children (i.e., with respect to positive adjustment and the quality of the parent child relationship) and their parents (i.e., fostering strong parenting skills) (Cashmore, Parkinson, Weston, Patulny, Redmond, Qu, Baxter, Rajkovic, Sitek & Katz, 2010; Kaspiew Gray, Weston, Moloney, Hand, Qu et al., 2009).

Time Spent Parenting and Child and Parent Factors

The time that either parent spends in parenting activities is important to children’s adjustment post-divorce, but research has indicated that it not necessarily the amount of time in itself that is important. Instead, the amount of time is associated with a host of variables that affects the adjustment of children in all families. These other important factors, most notably the quality of parenting, are discussed at length in Section 3. Some of the factors that have been shown to be important include:

  1. Spending sufficient and continuous time with a parent contributes to opportunities for children to develop secure attachments with parents (Kelly & Lamb, 2000; Lamb, Bornstein & Teti, 2002).
  2. Spending more time interacting with fathers has been linked to positive adjustment and cognitive development for children, strong psychological well-being and decreases in delinquency and behavioural problems (Amato & Rivera, 1999; Harris, Furstenberg & Marmer, 1998; Marsiglio, Day & Lamb, 2000; Tamis-LeMonda Shannon, Cabrera & Lamb, 2004).
  3. When a parent has more parenting time (especially when they have both agreed to it), children (and adults) often report stronger and more positive parent-child relationships Footnote 3 (see generally, Cashmore, et al., 2010; Fabricius, 2003; Fabricius, Sokol, Diaz & Braver, 2012; Frank, 2007; Sroufe & McIntosh, 2011) (for continuity of care see Berger, Brown, Joung, Melli & Wimer, 2008; Cyr, 2006; Kaspiew, et al., 2009; McIntosh, 2009; Melli & Brown, 2008; Shaffer, 2007; Smyth, 2010; Smyth & Moloney, 2008; Swiss & Le Bourdais, 2009). Having sufficient time with a parent allows for opportunities to develop and use parenting skills and supports the development of a strong parent-child relationship (Shaffer, 2007).
  4. When a parent has more time with children they are more satisfied with arrangements, which can have a positive impact on the child as well (Cashmore et al 2010; Sinha, 2014; Swiss & Le Bourdais 2009). Notably, there are conflicting reports regarding children’s satisfaction with their arrangements depending on the amount of time they spend with a parent – some studies report children are generally more satisfied with the parenting time (Lodge & Alexander, 2010) and others indicate that there is no difference for those in shared care versus sole mother care (Cashmore et al., 2010) Footnote 4. However, children in sole custody often express a desire for more contact with the other parent (Altenhofen, Biringen & Mergler, 2008; Bauserman, 2012; Cashmore et al., 2010; Fabricius & Hall, 2000; Melli & Brown, 2008; Nielsen, 2011; Neoh & Mellor, 2010; Parkinson, Cashmore & Single, 2005; Parkinson & Smyth, 2004; Smith & Gollop, 2001).
  5. When parents have more time with children they feel more confident as parents and engage in more positive parenting (i.e. authoritative parenting) (Fabricius et al. 2012; Jones & Mosher, 2013; Shaffer, 2007).Footnote 5
  6. When parents Footnote 6 have more parenting time (especially when they have agreed to it), they are less likely to lose contact with their children over the longer term (Berger, et al., 2008; Cyr, 2006; Kaspiew, et al., 2009; McIntosh, 2009; Melli & Brown, 2008; Shaffer, 2007; Smyth, 2010; Smyth & Moloney, 2008; Swiss & Le Bourdais, 2009). This finding is consistent across various samples including young American adults, British children, American college students, Canadian college students, Hispanic American college students, and German adolescents (Aquilino, 2010; Dunn Cheng, O’Connor & Bridges, 2004; Laumann & Emery, 2000; Peters & Ehrenberg, 2008; Pryor & Rodgers, 2001; Schwartz & Finley, 2005; Struss, Pfeiffer, Preus & Felder, 2001). Further, when noncustodial parents maintain consistent contact with children, they may be more likely to pay support (Bartfeld, 2003; Bartfeld & Meyer, 2003; Juby, Marcil-Gratton & Le Bourdais, 2005; Nepomnyaschy, 2007; McLanahan, Seltzer, Hanson & Thomson, 1994; Seltzer, Schaefer & Charng, 1989).Footnote 7

Stability of and Changes to Arrangements

Consistency, stability and predictability are important environmental factors for children when promoting positive adjustment, particularly for younger children. This does not mean that there should be no transitions or that arrangements should never change, but rather, that these decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis considering all relevant factors, and reviewed periodically. Some of the factors to consider relating to characteristics of the arrangements themselves include:

  1. Response to change and uncertainty differs among children, but it affects all children to some degree. Changes in parenting arrangements (which affect both the social and physical environment) can be stressful for some children and adolescents – especially when the changes are not initiated by or a result of a change in the children’s own needs (less control and predictability) (Lodge & Alexander, 2010).
  2. As children get older, most (depending on their temperament and other factors) require greater flexibility in the arrangements. In general, however, adolescents want flexibility to adjust the schedule to meet their needs rather than their parents adjusting it for their own (Lodge & Alexander, 2010).
  3. Some children find it more difficult to manage substantial time between two homes for many different reasons (e.g., their temperament, want to spend time with neighbourhood friends, difficulty dealing with change) (Cashmore et al., 2010). When children spend significant time with both parents they need to feel like they have a home with each parent, and not feel as if they are staying at the parent’s home (not their own) or living out of a suitcase (Cashmore et al., 2010; Smart & May, 2004).
  4. For some children transitions between homes is an issue, not only because of how they adapt to change, but also because of how their parents deal with the transitions. For example, if parents are inflexible or argue about children’s things (i.e., what clothes they bring back and forth, what happens if the children forget items in one home or another) children and adolescents tend to be less satisfied with their shared arrangements (Cashmore et al., 2010). Not only can the transition be a source of stress (the act of packing up or anticipating the change) but for some children the different household rules, times, routines, activities, beliefs, discipline and diet can also be stressful (Cashmore et al., 2010).
  5. Change in parenting arrangements may be needed when there are additional transitions in the post-divorce family such as moving, re-partnering etc. Multiple or frequent family structure transitions can be difficult for children (e.g., changes such as divorce, co-habitation, a second divorce, end of cohabitation, new cohabitation) not only because of the impact on stability and predictability, but also the increased pressure/stress they bring (e.g., moves to a new neighbourhood (especially a less affluent one), new partners for one or both parents) (e.g., Beck, Cooper, McLanahan, Brooks-Gunn, 2010; Cavanagh & Huston, 2008; Magnuson & Berger, 2009; Manning & Lamb, 2003; Sun & Li, 2009; Teachman, 2008).
  6. There is some mixed evidence that the changes in the family structure and re-partnering can make children feel less comfortable with the parent, feel not welcome in the home and attribute a new relationship as a source of difficulty (Cashmore et al., 2010). The adverse impacts of frequent transitions on child outcomes can include delinquency, drug use, poor academic performance and behavioural problems. These impacts would likely depend on how situations are handled by both parents.
  7. On the other hand, not all transitions are negative or neutral in their impact, some have a positive impact. For example, transitions can lead to a better familial situation, greater social support or access to better resources.