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Jen Mcintosh

Jun 182014
 

overnight care for toddler in shared parenting arrangementA US child psychologist has entered a bitter debate on toddler sleep-overs by warning that young children from separated families could suffer brain damage by sleeping over with their father if their mother is the primary caregiver.

Psychologist Penelope Leach has made the explosive statement that separation from mothers “reduces brain development” and could lead to “unhealthy attachment issues”. She has offered no evidence to back up her claims however, relying on her apparent expert opinion and observations.

Dr Leach, whose parenting books have sold millions, says even one night away from mum, if she is the primary caregiver, could cause lasting damage.

Discredited Research

These sentiments follow the now condemned research carried out by Australian psychologist Dr Jen McIntosh, which found that toddlers separated from their mother during sleep time, were more stressed. The research used by Dr McIntosh to make these claims has since been roundly condemned as unsound, non-scientific, non-longitudinal, and methodically compromised, and many argued that her research was of little value since it was so poorly structured. It should be noted that McIntosh’s conclusion have not been supported by any other similar studies since.

The Influence of McIntosh and Co on Shared Parenting laws

The influence however of the McIntosh study, as flawed as it was, on Australia’s family law system has been so profound that barristers have a special phrase to describe the common experience of losing the battle for some overnight care of toddlers – they joke they’ve been “McIntoshed”. But for the fathers concerned it is no joking matter.

The McIntosh era dates back to 2010 when the Labor government commissioned her to lead an investigation into the impact on preschoolers of overnight contact in their father’s care. Many are of the view that McIntosh was commissioned by the Labor government, precisely because she had made no secret that she was opposed to Australia’s then-recently enacted Shared Parenting laws.

Condemned as amateurish and transparent  

Ash Patil from Fathers4Equality called the McIntosh research “trojan horse advocacy which was undone by the fact that the study was so poorly done. The study had no redeeming features, it was a complete mess and it looked like a rush job which did not even do the basics like have a proper control group. It can best be described as amateurish and quite transparent in its goal.”

Sonja Hastings, editor of Articles About Men claimed that “I think McIntosh started out with the conclusion, and then she made her research fit her ideology, and I think there is no hiding from that fact when you read the study.”

“She even avoids addressing the most obvious questions that come from her research. For instance, what about sleeping at grandparents, or at daycare, or in another room, or while mum is in the kitchen. It is a case of ideology trumping common sense and healthy development dynamics in all families.”

Likewise with Psychologist Penelope Leach’s claims on brain damage for sleep-overs with dad, a lot of people remain unconvinced.

Dr Leach first caused controversy in the 1970s when she released her book, Your Baby & Child: From Birth To Age Five, which suggested that only mothers could care adequately for a child and a father’s role is secondary.

Dr Leach says shared custody is being treated as a right rather than considering what is best for the child.

Celebrities like Louis CK have spoken about the difficulties faced sharing custody of children. Louis CK continually talks about how he would be nothing without his two daughters.

While fathers’ groups have called the comments by Dr Leach ‘absolute poison’, Oliver James, a trained clinical child psychologist, journalist and TV presenter, said Dr Leach was providing “good advice.”

“All the evidence suggests that younger children should not be separated from their primary caregiver who, in the vast majority of cases, is the mother,” he told the Independent. “If the child has a really strong attachment to both parents, there might be a case for exploring whether it really matters if they have sleep- overs at the father’s. But in most cases, you should do nothing to disrupt the relationship with the primary caregiver. To do so can affect the child’s brain development.

110 Leading International Experts on Child development

However,  according to a recently published academic paper endorsed by 110 leading international experts, it is not the case that sharing of overnight care of infants is problematic. The paper, Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A consensus report was published in February in the American Psychological Association’s journal, Psychology, Public Policy and Law.

It is backed by leading Australian academics including Don Edgar, the former head of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Judy Cashmore, Associate Professor in Socio-Legal Studies at Sydney University and Barry Nurcombe, Emeritus Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Queensland.

This article analyses existing research and finds that infants commonly develop attachment relationships with more than one care giver and concludes that in normal circumstances children are likely to do better if they have overnight contact with both parents.

It also finds that depriving young children of the opportunity to stay overnight with their fathers could compromise the quality of developing father-child relationships.

Fathers4Equality echoes this compelling research by stressing that unscientific dogma being pushed by zealouts  like Leach and McIntosh is what ultimately is so harmful to our young children, by denying them an equal and meaningful relationship with both parents, at a time when they need it the most.

May 182014
 

jen-mcintosh-exposed-as-scientific-fraudOf the eight studies done to date on the effects of overnight care by non-resident parents on very young children, seven of them show either no adverse effects or that overnights are associated with improved outcomes. That leaves the 2010 study by McIntosh, Smyth, Kelaher and Wells. To say that it’s a seriously flawed piece of work is to put it mildly. That it’s become the touchstone for the anti-dad crowd to continue their efforts to marginalize fathers in the lives of their children comes as no surprise first because the study can easily be read to do just that and second because the anti-dad crowd’s never much cared for intellectual scruples.

The study, that many call the “pre-schooler study,” was conducted for the office of the Australian Attorney General, and was based on data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). Now, the LSAC has a good bit of heft to it, comprised as it is of data gathered from some 10,000 children. But McIntosh, et al didn’t use all those kids or all that data. Indeed, constructing their study as they did, some samples they used had as few as 14 children in them. Most tellingly, “the negative data on which the woozle (that children experience problems with attachment to a parent if they have too many overnights with the other parent) is based came from some of the smallest samples in the study.”

And, speaking of the study’s samples, they turn out to bear no relationship to the general population. As Dr. Linda Nielsen points out, “Most of these parents had never been married to one another (90% for infants and 60% for toddlers) and 30% of the infants’ parents had never even lived together. This means the findings should not be generalized to the general population of divorced parents.” So, in addition to everything else, the findings of the McIntosh study, even if they had validity, turn out to be useless in any but the narrowest of situations. They can’t be applied parents generally or to divorced parents or to those who’ve lived together for long.

 For that proposition, the study is entirely worthless, and it gets close to that status for others.
Worse, despite the large population of children in the LSAC, McIntosh, et al simply failed to compare certain groups. For example, as Nielsen points out, “this study never compared the children who never overnighted to the children who only occasionally overnighted. That is, the study never addressed the question: Is occasional overnighting better or worse than never overnighting?” For that proposition, the study is entirely worthless, and it gets close to that status for others.

For example, the study takes as a given “that infants form a “primary” attachment to only one parent and later form a “secondary” attachment to their other parent.” To say the least, that’s a very doubtful assertion. It’s contradicted by considerable social science on the issue that Warshak, et al detail in his paper, but McIntosh and colleagues went ahead and assumed it anyway.

Still worse, McIntosh, et al decided to define “shared care” completely differently than do the rest of social scientists who study this issue. For most such scientists, “shared care” means a minimum of 35% to 40% parenting time for each parent. But inexplicably, for McIntosh and her fellow researchers, it meant as little as five nights per month with the non-resident parent, or about 16.5% of parenting time. Why they changed the definition so many social scientists work with as a matter of course remains a mystery.

Worst of all, the authors used six measures to determine whether a child was being adversely affected by overnights with dad, and four of them have never been validated as actually reflecting adverse consequences. Really, that’s what they did. So McIntosh, et al looked at “irritability, persistence (at a particular task), wheezing, and wariness/watchfulness about the mother’s where-abouts” to measure whether or not a child was stressed by overnighting with its father. The problem is that, no one else had ever used those to measure what McIntosh, et al sought to measure. They’d been validated for other purposes, but not for that. The researchers simply made them up for the purpose of evaluating the stress, or lack thereof, on children of overnights.

That alone renders the study essentially meritless. No one can say a particular type of behavior evidences stress in an infant unless the behavior has been independently shown to indicate that. But on at least one of the McIntosh group’s measures, their conclusions may in fact be the exact opposite of what they ought to be.

The idea that a child’s watchfulness, i.e. its tendency to keep an eye on its mother, indicates stress on the child’s part was invented out of whole cloth by McIntosh, et al. But watchfulness has been validated as an indicator of another type of behavior — readiness to begin talking. As Nielsen points out, watchfulness by a pre-verbal child has been shown to indicate “that the infant has more highly developed ways of communicating and is readier to begin talking.”

So, in McIntosh’s study, children with frequent overnights exhibited greater watchful behavior and to the researchers, that indicated heightened stress even though the test had never been validated for that. What that behavior did indicate was that the children with frequent overnights were in fact more advanced in their communication skills than were the children with fewer overnights. In other words, contrary to McIntosh et al’s claims, overnights, at least on that measure were beneficial to the kids. Needless to say, the researchers didn’t mention the fact and instead claimed the opposite.

Not content with claiming a single measure indicated children’s stress when it doesn’t, the researchers moved on to others. For example, wheezing. Mothers were asked a single question about whether their child wheezed more than four times a week. “The LSAC researchers had used this question as part of a scale to assess health or sleep problems,” but McIntosh, et al decided, quite without foundation that wheezing meant stress and that stress came from overnights. Indeed, at least one study, characteristically unmentioned by McIntosh, found the opposite to be true.

The same held true for two other measures — irritability and persistence at a task — the researchers used to claim that children with frequent overnights experienced greater stress than those with fewer or none.

In short, the irritability and persistence scales were not validated measures for assessing infant stress, or developmental problems, or emotional regulation difficulties.

As Nielsen points out, irritability can result from virtually anything and lack of persistence from ADHD. But none of that prevented McIntosh, et al from claiming that heightened irritability and lower persistence were indicators of stress and that stress came from overnights with dad.

By now it should be clear that the pre-schooler study is essentially useless as a guide to anything, much less establishing policy on parenting time following divorce or separation. As many social scientists have pointed out since its publication, it’s simply too flawed and its data too ambiguous to make it worth much in any context. But in the three plus years since its publication, it’s been anything but the doorstop it qualifies to be. Unlike its more scrupulous fellows in the field of overnights for young children, the pre-schooler study swept the world of family law and became the Bible on the subject for judges, lawyers, custody evaluators, mediators and the like. It shouldn’t have, but it did.

And that’s a story for my next post

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