Have you heard that children under the age of four should live primarily, or exclusively, with their mothers after their parents divorce because too much “overnighting” in their father’s care creates a host of problems — especially for infants? If so, then you have been misled just as many lawyers, judges and policy makers have been misled by these reports. And you may not be aware that 110 international experts have endorsed the conclusion reached by psychologist Richard Warshak in his recent research paper: There is no scientific evidence that justifies limiting or postponing overnighting until the age of four. Unfortunately, the alarming reports about overnighting still abound, depriving many babies and toddlers of overnight care from their fathers.
Given this, I set out to answer the question: How did so many people — including well-educated professionals involved in making custody decisions and reforming custody laws — come to believe that overnighting had been “proven” so damaging for infants and toddlers?
The answer involves a process I have called woozling: “Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans and Family Court.” The term stems from the children’s story where Winnie the Pooh and his friends became obsessed with the idea that they were being stalked by a frightful beast they called a woozle. In reality, of course there was no woozle. They were merely seeing their own footprints as they circled a tree. They were deceived by faulty “data.” The sociologist Richard Gelles pointed out many years ago that a belief or a claim based on inaccurate, partial or flawed data — data that have been repeated so often that people eventually believe them — can be called a woozle.
In my paper, I describe how we can be bamboozled (woozled), illustrating the process with an Australian study that has frequently been cited over the past five years as “scientific evidence” that babies and preschoolers should spend little, if any, overnight time in their nonresidential fathers’ care. The misleading message that arose from this study was this: Babies who overnight more than three times and toddlers who overnight more that nine times are more irritable, inattentive, physically stressed, anxious, insecure and wary. They are also “severely distressed” interacting with their mothers and they wheeze more often due to the stress of overnighting. These messages were widely reported in the media and at conferences for people whose work involves child custody decisions.
So I peeled back the layers of the many woozles that arose from this particular study. For example, the “wheezing woozle” claimed that babies who overnighted any more than three times a month were so stressed that they wheezed more often. In reality, however, infant wheezing can be caused by many factors having nothing to do with stress — including mold, pets, cigarette smoke and carpet in the home. Add to that another medical fact: Infant wheezing is often difficult to detect even for pediatricians, let alone for the mothers who were asked to answer only one question: Does your child wheeze more than four nights a week — yes or no? And as it turns out, data in the original report showed that toddlers who frequently overnighted wheezed the least. Then the “whining woozle” claimed frequent overnighters were more irritable and more “severely distressed” — which was interpreted to mean they were less securely attached to their moms. In fact, though, these babies had exactly the same irritability mean score as babies in intact families. Moreover, the babies who frequently overnighted were no more irritable than infants who never overnighted. These facts leave the whining woozle on pretty shaky ground. As for “severe distress”, the overnighters’ scores on the behavioral problems test were well within normal range. And those behaviors that were considered signs of a toddler’s “severe distress” — kicking, biting or getting angry at their mom, gagging on food or refusing to eat, being clingy and crying when mothers were leaving — turned out to be behaviors experienced by nearly 50 percent of Australian moms in a separate nationwide survey.
Especially in matters as important as fathering time, we need to be more aware of being misled by reports about the “scientific evidence.” In that vein, journalists like Bettina Arndt should be applauded for bringing our attention to those studies that have been misreported or misrepresented in ways that can lead to misguided public policies. But as individuals, we also have a responsibility to examine more carefully those studies that receive the most attention. We don’t want to end up like Winnie the Pooh — woozled into being afraid of something that should never have aroused our fear at all.
Wake Forest University, Winston Salem, NC