This just in: Children of divorce do better when both parents live in the same general vicinity. Stunning, I know.
So go the findings of "new research" into divorce trends and their effects on children. When it takes "new research" to confirm the obvious, we might figure we've run out of things to explore.
And yet, what's obvious apparently isn't so obvious anymore. What should be clear without succumbing to Freud's couch is that children need and deserve both parents, a mother and a father. I realize heterosexual unions have lost some of their luster, but there it is. The original plan.
Even so, courts have been following a trend in recent years of allowing custodial parents to relocate following divorce. In 82 percent of relocation cases, the child was separated from the father, either because the custodial mother moved or because the father moved alone, according to the study. Other data cited show that about one-fourth of custodial mothers relocate within four years of marriage or separation.
Meanwhile, exhaustive research has confirmed what any nursemaid knows -as Freud once described his own findings -that mothers and fathers bring different gifts to a child. We also know from observation and research that children who grow up without fathers fall victim to a range of social pathologies.
Translated, that means they tend to do less well in school, are more likely to experiment with sex and drugs at earlier ages, to be delinquent and to have a variety of emotional problems.
Objectively, one might determine that keeping children from their fathers is not in anyone's best interest, including the custodial mother's.
Raising a child alone is no one's picnic, especially when said child is a father-hungry mess. But apparently, we need studies to tell us what we know and prefer to ignore.
And inevitably we hand over to courts increasing powers to make intrusive decisions that responsible parents ought to be making on their own.
This new study comes from a group of researchers at Arizona State University, including Sanford L. Braver, psychologist and author of Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998). A longtime respected advocate for fathers in divorce, Braver has done much to dispel some of the demonizing myths that have pursued fathers in family court.
Braver and co-authors Bill Fabricius, another ASU psychology professor, and ASU law professor Ira Ellman based their study on 602 students of divorced families. They found that those who had one parent relocate after divorce had problems in 11 of 14 measures of well being, including emotional distress and general health.
The researchers aren't claiming a cause-and-effect relationship between moving and subsequent problems, but Fabricius noted, "It definitely appears to be associated with these problems."
Probably not coincidentally, the study comes in time to present as evidence in a new case before the California Supreme Court in which a father is asking the court to reconsider the 1996 "Burgess" precedent, which made it easier for custodial parents to move.
In that case, the court ruled that the custodial mother could move for any reason except for the express purpose of depriving the father of access to his child. Whereupon even Pollyanna rolled her eyes and mimed, "Sure, whatever."
There are plenty of good reasons for a custodial parent to want to move, as the ASU researchers noted -a better job, greater access to extended family members, less economic stress, better child-care options. As in, Mom may want to move closer to her family and resources as she begins life as a single, working parent.
But it's also likely true that some custodial parents wouldn't mind putting some physical distance between themselves and the no-longer-charming former spouse. Who can blame them? Well, the child might someday because the child didn't ask for a divorce and probably would rather keep both parents, if that's not too much to ask.
Braver's group is hoping their findings will encourage courts to give greater weight to the child's "separate interests" rather than to the parent's wish to relocate.
In principle, the researchers are surely right. With rare exceptions, children do best when they have access to two loving parents. Non-custodial parents inarguably are acting responsibly when they try to retain access to their children.
But practically speaking, we might hesitate to invite courts to decide who gets to live where. If we're not careful, our next study may be to determine the negative consequences for children forced to live among warring parents held geographical prisoner by overreaching courts.