In a recent interview, Dr. Warren Farrell, co-author of "The Boy Crisis," made this statement based on hundreds of peer-reviewed studies: "Dad's time trumps Dad's dime."
"More than 100 psychologists and researchers got together. They wrote in unanimous consent that the children need their father about equally to their mother in the case of divorce," says Farrell.
Farrell explained that for years researchers believed that children did better with an involved father because intact families had more money and lived in better neighborhoods. However, researchers controlled for virtually every variable and found that father involvement plays a vital role in the health of a child. It's not just about the money he may provide, although that is very important. It is the combination of presence and provision.
"The degree of difference between the health of a child who has both father and mother involvement, who has four things after divorce is so different from the health of the child that doesn't," Farrell says.
Farrell goes on to say that whether babies are born prematurely or full-term, the importance of the father being involved is enormous.
"Prematurely born children are more likely to develop their brains better and get out of the hospital sooner and have more psychomotor functioning when the father is visiting the hospital as much as possible, according to research from Yale University," he says.
"The father breathing on the child when it's first born helps the bonding process to occur and changes the dad's brain," Farrell says "The sooner the father gets involved with the child, a whole nest of neurons in the male brain begins to develop and connect with each other that mimics the mother instinct — overlapping with mother instinct. Oxytocin levels go up, testosterone levels go down. Dads connect emotionally with their children."
Farrell is making all of these points ultimately to say that in the event of an unavoidable divorce, there are four must-dos for your child to have a reasonable chance of doing well.
The first one is an equal amount of time with mother and father. Being in checks and balance mode with each other never means the father going away and working 80 hours a week and coming back when he is exhausted and the children are in bed. Farrell asserts that children need more than a Disneyland Dad or just a visitor on the weekends. They need time, and plenty of it.
The second must-do is for the mother and father to live within a 20-minute drive time from each other. This gives children greater stability and creates less resentment, because if parents live further away, the kids may have to give up activities or friends in order to see the other parent.
It's also important that children are not able to hear or detect bad-mouthing or negativity from one parent about the other. If one parent responds negatively about something concerning the other one, it can affect the child's intimacy with one or both parents. Bad-mouthing isn't just by words; it's also via body language and tone of voice. Farrell says that many parents will swear that their kids did not overhear them saying something negative about the other parent while on the phone, but the child could detect the difference in the tone of voice, even from another room.
Finally, it's beneficial for the kids if parents spend significant time doing consistent relationship counseling, even if it only happens every few weeks. If parents only seek counsel in an emergency, the chances are you need to solve the problem sooner, and you are more likely to make the other parent wrong and you only see the other parent when you are emergency mode. Therefore, you don't have the chance to think and feel through with compassion the other parent's best intent to solve the problem and make decisions.
"Before you make a decision to have a child, do the research on why children need a significant amount of father involvement so that you don't raise a child on your own and think it is just fine to do so and think that having a stepfather or you doing the father-type of role is going to be enough," Farrell says.
"If you believe your new husband is going to be a better stepfather than the biological father is a father, know that almost always the stepfather perceives himself to be an adviser, and the dynamic between a biological mother and stepfather is one where the biological mother does make the final decision. All of the dad-style parenting that a stepfather could potentially bring to a child's life, like roughhousing, is likely to be inhibited by a biological mother with a lot more power and potency than she will use with the biological father. There's a tendency for the stepfather to back out of equal parent engagement and just become a breadwinner."
Since research consistently shows that both parents are the best parents, Farrell expresses concern for unmarried biological moms who are living with the father. Farrell wants these moms to understand that when mom is the primary parent, it often leads to the father being uninvolved and feeling that he is not valued. In situations like this, many fathers leave the child's life within the first three to four years.
A word of caution here: While there is no question that some parents are unfit when it comes to filling the parent role, careful evaluation may be necessary to discern whether an ex is truly not fit to parent or if it would just be easier not to have to deal with them. If your thought process is more along the lines of, "I made a mistake marrying him I want to start life over again without her I don't like him I don't like dealing with her " it might be wise for you to reconsider your stance.
There's a big difference between safety and abuse issues and misunderstanding the other parent's reasoning, thought processes or parenting style. If the goal is for children of divorce to be healthy in adulthood, it is important to follow these four must-dos after a divorce when it is possible and safe to do so.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.