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Parental Alienation


A handful of presentations at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017 were on parental alienation. This is a challenging area to study because (1) some kids hate one or both parents even in intact families, (2) some kids may hate a parent because the parent has done something to them, and (3) some kids may hate Parent B because Parent A says bad things about Parent B.

In the family law context, psychologists collect fees to determine if Case #3 is occurring and the standard seems to be “I know it when I see it.” The waters are inherently muddy due to the fact that a parent who files a divorce lawsuit is generally doing something harmful to his or her children (see the Litigation chapter: “It a mistake to think of divorce lawsuits as being Parent 1 v. Parent 2,” was how one lawyer explained the typical situation. “In the cases where anyone has enough money to hire me, the parties who are opposed are the plaintiff parent and the children.”). The waters are further muddied by the fact that many states give child support plaintiffs (winner parents) a financial incentive to engender hatred of the defendant (loser) parent. If the child refuses to spend time with the loser parent and the parenting time split goes from 70/30 to 100/0, for example, the cash profitability of the child increases under many states’ child support guidelines.

The stories of children who haven’t seen one of their parents, a person who actually does love them, for years or decades, are sad. We actually have one of these guys in our suburban neighborhood. He doesn’t know whether his adult daughter is dead or alive because, decades ago, his plaintiff “just made it too difficult to see her.” He’s super gentle, so he probably would have been an important resource for the girl (now woman). Certainly he seems like a good father to his elementary-school-age child (though, unless he moves out of Massachusetts into one of the states with 50/50 shared parenting as a default, he is at risk of a repeat!).

Nonetheless, as a numbers person it is tough to know what to do with sentiment. A common outcome of an American divorce or custody lawsuit is that the child hasn’t seen the loser parent within the previous year (see the Children, Mothers, and Fathers chapter for how it might be roughly 2/3rds of children of divorce falling into this category). But how much of that is due to parental alienation? Nobody cares enough to gather data and it might be challenging to gather even if anyone did care.

Americans at the conference, mostly lawyers and psychologists, confirmed what the litigators we’d interviewed for Real World Divorce told us: most states’ family courts make it easy for a motivated plaintiff to go from being winner parent to being 100-percent parent. Where the conference attendees differed from the veteran litigators was on plaintiff motivation. The attendees simply denied the possibility of a financial motive for fomenting parental alienation. It was a psychological phenomenon and therefore the only remedies were bringing more and better psychologists into lawsuits.

I cited Brinig and Allen (see Causes of Divorce), who found that the possibility of being the winner parent increased the probability of a divorce lawsuit being filed and then, in a later paper, that the profitability of child support also influenced the probability of a plaintiff seeking to be divorced in the first place. How could parental alienation work in Nevada? I asked. With a 50/50 shared parenting guideline and child support capped at $13,000 per year, how could it be done and, more importantly, why would someone bother trying? Nobody was persuaded that changing the incentives would be more effective than bringing more psychologists into the courtroom. This was true even with a guy who’d actually lost a child (attending the conference to find remedies and sources for his situation). He was a Massachusetts resident who had been the loser in a winner-take-all divorce. He believed that his child was currently alienated from him due to actions taken by the plaintiff/winner parent. I couldn’t sell him on the idea that he might not even have been sued in the first place if he’d lived in Nevada, Arizona, or Pennsylvania, and that as a 50/50 parent in those states his plaintiff would have had a tougher time embarking on a program of parental alienation. As with most Americans at the conference, he wanted to see better-funded family courts (but we already spend more on family court matters than any other society in the history of humanity!), better personnel, and better procedures so that there would be more accurate outcomes after litigation.

The one thing I learned is that parental alienation allegations may be most commonly made by winner parents. How is that possible when the children are with the loser parent only every other weekend? Here’s how the process was explained to me: Plaintiffs typically sue when children are young; the winner parent gets accustomed to a compliant 5-year-old; the winner parent loses the relocation fight so the kid is actually still in contact with the loser parent; the sweet 5-year-old turns into a questioning 13-year-old; the 13-year-old begins to question the winner parent’s motivations and veracity; the 13-year-old gets an earful on the greed and mendacity of the winner parent from the loser parent’s new partner (evil stepmother, just like in fairy tale!); the 13-year-old decides to switch allegiance and refuses to return “home” to the winner parent’s house, thus putting the continued child support cashflow at risk.

Readers: What do you think? If we know that a child hates one parent is there in fact a practical hope of figuring out why? Or will we just spend the remnants of what would have been this child’s college fund paying psychologists to guess?


  • no blog entry is complete without a reference to Rachel Dolezal, who sued her husband (and father of one of her two children) and was subsequently accused by the defendant of parental alienation (New York Daily News)

Photos of the Tall Ships in Boston


Sail Boston 2017 ended today with the departure of tall ships from all around the world.

Here are some photos from the dock, from a schooner (Hindu), from the Institute for Contemporary Art’s 4th floor, and from an East Coast Aero Club Robinson R44 helicopter:

album on Google Photos


Helicopters Explained for Curious Children (Kindle book)



Helicopters Explained for Curious Children is now available as a Kindle book (paperback eventually). If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber can you please download and give some feedback (technical or content-related).

If you’re not a Kindle Unlimited subscriber and buy it and don’t love it I’ll be happy to personally refund your $1.99 via PayPal!

Thanks in advance for any comments.

[I should note that this was developed as a hand-out for schools that we visit in our helicopter (free of charge). Also,if you don’t want to invest $1.99, email me and I will send you the ePub or PDF.]

Shared parenting literature review from Michael Lamb: is the main point of social science research to bolster personal prejudice?


Michael Lamb, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University (“the real Cambridge”), gave a literature review with historical perspective at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017.

The highest-level perspective:

  • “hundreds of papers show a higher risk of maladjustment in children when parents have separated.” (note the genteel phraseology for what might have been a pretty interesting “separation” that was unlikely to be mutual!)
  • maintaining a relationship with both parents minimizes the risk and the bad effects of parental separation

[So we can already conclude that the U.S. will have the highest proportion of maladjusted citizens because (1) we have the highest percentage of children living without both parents, and (2) a family law system that, in most states, discourages regular contact with the loser parent.]

To stay within his 30-minute slot, Lamb concentrated on “attachment theory” and, in a winner/loser parent system, the question of whether or not young children should spend overnights with the loser parent. In a family law system that consumes 3 percent of GDP, why would toddler overnights be worth a special focus? Litigators told us that cash-motivated plaintiffs tend to sue when the youngest child is 2 years old. This is the point at which a second adult in the household is less useful because (a) the child can be parked with day care, (b) the child can be parked with an iPad or TV, or (c) the child can be parked with a babysitter in the evening. In the “preserve and extend the status quo states” the winner parent from the first round of litigation is generally guaranteed to retain winner parent status until the child ages out of the child support system, age 18-23. Preventing the child from spending overnights with the loser parent is an important first step in severing the relationship with the loser parent, which is helpful for keeping the cash flowing and also with getting court permission to relocate.

Courts have historically awarded winner status to the mother, who is also typically the plaintiff in a divorce or custody lawsuit, with young children spending 100 percent of their overnights with the mother and enjoying occasional visits with the father (though that tenuous relationship often withers away to nothing). In the old days it was enough to say “the kids go with the mother because she is the mother,” but in a nominally gender-neutral legal system it became necessary to find more elaborate theories for why the outcomes should continue to park children exclusively with mom.

Lamb explained that “attachment theory” suggests that attachment forms at 7-8 months “usually to both co-resident parents.” Courts would then deny children overnights with the loser parent (father) not because courts hated fathers but because they were concerned that a young child spending overnights with the loser parent would have a problem attaching to and/or maintaining an attachment to the winner parent (mom).

Lamb described Solomon and George, 1999. He explained that the frequent citation of this paper by family court practitioners was problematic because the population was not representative. It is about biological parents who barely knew each other, often having separated before the child was born and certainly prior to the 7/8-month attachment threshold. Of the fathers with whom children spent overnights, 86 percent of them were under restraining orders obtained by the mothers (compared to 100 percent of the fathers who were blocked by the court from caring for children overnight).

Australian judges denying young children overnight time with their fathers rely on work by Mcintosh, Smyth, and Kelaher (2010). Lamb found the study flawed due to lack of information regarding whether or not the separated parents had ever lived together and, if so, how old the child was at the time of separation. He noted that the children who were supposedly being harmed by overnights with their fathers had the same scores for “vigilance” and “irritability” as the children in intact families. Lamb pointed out that the study showed no differences on teacher- or observer-reported behavior for young children and that, by age 4, there were no differences at all, even including reports from mothers.

Tornello, Emery, et al. (2013) is another popular paper that is cited to deny children overnight access to fathers. Lamb noted that the population is also not representative of typical family court litigants. For example, 70 percent of the parents were not living together when the children were born and 85 percent were black or Hispanic. The survey was designed for use by trained observers, but the researchers asked mothers to fill it out themselves. The researchers concluded that children who spent overnights with fathers were less attached to their moms, but they included children who spent 5 out of every 7 nights with their fathers in this group of children who “visit fathers.” So basically they found that children who spend most of their time with Parent A are less attached to Parent B. One curious data point was that the children with the best behavior and adjustment lived exclusively with their dads (see also the Spanish children who were happiest when they lived with two fathers!).

In Lamb’s opinion, one of the best studies on the subject of toddler overnights was Fabricius and Suh (2017), which found a more or less linear relationship between overnights with the father and quality of relationship with the father while at the same time, at least up to a 50/50 shared schedule, there was minimal/positive impact on the relationship with the mother.

The audience, many of whom get paid to show up in court as expert witnesses from time to time, did not see decades of courts using obviously-flawed research as an indication that litigation might not be the best way to resolve questions about a child’s schedule. Instead they hoped that the judges and psychologists involved in adjudicating custody disputes would upgrade to relying on the latest and best research.

At one point in the conference, however, I asked “aren’t there enough papers that a Guardian ad litem, judge, or expert witness can find at least one study to justify any personal prejudice or to support one side in a case?” The answer was, of course, “yes” and nobody had a clear explanation for how the use of social science would result in different outcomes compared to judges simply ruling according to personal inclination or prejudice. In fact, I said “Wouldn’t children who’ve been through the family court mill actually be better off if none of this research existed? Common sense would have suggested that a child who never spends overnights with the father is unlikely to develop a close or even a real relationship with that father. Without support from social scientists, judges might have been reluctant to sever the father-child relationship.” The social scientists at the conference didn’t disagree, but pointed out that if results were communicated to the public and judges there might be a change either to legislation, e.g., mandating 50/50 shared parenting (such as has happened in Arizona and Nevada), or in the personal prejudice of judges, such as has happened in Pennsylvania (moved to a 50/50 shared parenting default without any change in the “best interests” standard).

Readers: What do you think? Is the main point of social science to justify conclusions that would otherwise seem absurd? We have a subset of social scientists ready to tell us that when costs for low-skilled labor are pushed up by minimum wage laws, businesses won’t cut back on their use of low-skilled labor (examples). We have a subset of social scientists ready to tell us that we can offer people free housing, health care, food, and smartphones conditional on them not working and yet they will remain eager to work.


  • Steven Pinker in Blank Slate (2003): “”The denial of human nature has spread beyond the academy and has led to a disconnect between intellectual life and common sense. I first had the idea of writing this book when I started a collection of astonishing claims from pundits and social critics about the malleability of the human psyche: that little boys quarrel and fight because they are encouraged to do so; that children enjoy sweets because their parents use them as a reward for eating vegetables; that teenagers get the idea to compete in looks and fashion from spelling bees and academic prizes; that men think the goal of sex is an orgasm because of the way they were socialized. The problem is not just that these claims are preposterous but that the writers did not acknowledge they were saying things that common sense might call into question. This is the mentality of a cult, in which fantastical beliefs are flaunted as proof of one’s piety. That mentality cannot coexist with an esteem for the truth, and I believe it is responsible for some of the unfortunate trends in recent intellectual life. One trend is a stated contempt among many scholars for the concepts of truth, logic, and evidence. Another is a hypocritical divide between what intellectuals say in public and what they really believe. A third is the inevitable reaction: a culture of “politically incorrect” shock jocks who revel in anti-intellectualism and bigotry, emboldened by the knowledge that the intellectual establishment has forfeited claims to credibility in the eyes of the public.”

Oxymoron: Interesting Computer History


“Minitel, the Open Network Before the Internet” (Atlantic) is worth reading (though I wish that someone could find good videos of people actually using Minitel terminals). Minitel is a good reminder that most stuff that folks do on the Web today was already happening on the Minitel system in the 1980s. Programmers aren’t smarter today. We only look smarter because the hardware engineers have given us so much more power (most of which we turned around and wasted!).

Best way to avoid adult-adult conflict in your household: have a child without a co-parent


An opening speaker at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017 wondered “How can courts determined the best interests of a child when two parents in an intact family may spend weeks or months arguing about this regarding a particular issue?” [This dovetails with Linda Nielsen’s comment in Real World Divorce that it isn’t possible for a psychologist to figure out which is the better or more important parent within an intact family, so how is a family court judge in one of the winner-take-all states supposed to do this?]

“Conflict” between parents is a common reason for U.S. courts and legislators to deny children a 50/50 schedule with their two parts. The doctrine is that conflict will be less important and/or will be reduced if the children see the loser parent just every other weekend (often trending down from there, especially after a relocation).

But what if conflict is the natural condition of two involved parents? Then courts would be discarding the most involved co-parents.

The ever-rich-in-data Swedes came to the conference with what might be an answer. Malin Bergstrom presented statistics on conflict between parents whose children live in different situations. Guess who fights the most? Parents in nuclear/intact families! Separating and putting the kids on a 50/50 schedule reduces the amount of parent-to-parent conflict. Separating and putting the kids on an every-other-weekend schedule reduces the amount of parent-to-parent conflict yet more.

[Note that these data might be different in the U.S. due to the fact that divorce is typically an administrative proceeding in Sweden and child support payments are limited to about $2,000 per year per child. So children who are on an every-other-weekend schedule does not suggest that there was a big winner-take-all lawsuit with bitter winner (did not get as much cash as hoped) and a bitter loser (greatly reduced standard of living and seldom sees children).]

The news is not all bad for those of us who live with a co-parent: the amount of cooperation tracks the amount of conflict.

Still, the Swedish data suggest a life strategy for those who want to enjoy a conflict-free existence as a parent: have a baby without a partner.

Checking in on an African country after 50 years of foreign aid


Lesotho starting getting foreign aid at least 50 years ago (see “Aid, Development and Democracy in Lesotho, 1966-1996” by Khabele Matlosa). “Remember the Population Bomb? It’s Still Ticking” is a recent nytimes article by an expert who has been tracking the country for most of that time:

In tiny Lesotho, a landlocked kingdom in southern Africa, about one-third of its estimated two million people spent much of the past two years in danger of starving because of the lingering effects of a drought.

More than 40 years ago, I made Lesotho the centerpiece of a book, “The Alms Race,” that explored why so many development projects kept failing. I chose it because in 1974 it received more development aid per capita than any other nation.

It could also have been voted most likely to vindicate Thomas Malthus’s warning in 1798 that human numbers would inevitably outrun the resources on which our lives depend. Today, Lesotho’s experience since the 1970s is an even stronger case study of what happens when development plans ignore the reality that such efforts can be a recipe for exploding human numbers.

Even with only 1.2 million inhabitants in 1974, Lesotho’s leaders saw the country was overpopulated. A 1966 British Colonial Office study estimated that the land could support 400,000 people at best — a number Lesotho had reached by 1911.

It has been a bad situation for these past 50 years, but fortunately the New York Times has identified the villain primarily responsible:

Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems bent on exacerbating the problem. Apart from cutting aid for family planning, it has now backed out of the global Paris agreements that seek to avert the most devastating impacts of climate change, even as rising sea levels and drought-related famines threaten to create tens of millions of new migrants.


German family law, shared parenting, and conflict with European and UN law


North Americans at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017 tended to be sentimental. Presenters sometimes showed maudlin videos of fathers playing with kids. Therapists and psychologists would talk about the complex emotions that centered around a desire to win sole custody of kids, never mentioning that being the winner parent was more profitable than being a shared parent (see an example from our Massachusetts chapter:

if each parent earns $125,000 per year, for example, child support would be $0 in a 50/50 arrangement, $10,000 per year in a 60/40 arrangement. $20,000 per year in a 67/33 custody arrangement, and $30,000 per year or more in a 100/0 arrangement (discretionary with the judge). Over a 23-year period, therefore, the parent who earns $125,000 per year and has roughly the same expenses (a dedicated bedroom) regardless of the timeshare can collect anywhere between $0 and $690,000 tax-free depending on the outcome of the custody fight


Into this Kumbaya-singing party walked Professor Dr. Hildegund Sünderhauf, a researcher from Nuremberg: “I used to be a divorce litigator, but I didn’t want to be a rental weapon against the other parent.” She explained that she’d been kicked out of the German Association of Women Lawyers due to her work on shared parenting. Why didn’t they like it? “The aim of the women’s movement has shifted from equality to mothers as owners of children getting paid as much as possible for the purpose of enjoying their freedom.” (see the feminism section of the Rationale chapter for a North American view)

Prof. Dr. Sünderhauf gave us some statistics: 91 percent of Germany’s “single parents” are women. 95 percent of separated German parents share legal custody while about 15 percent of them have a 50/50 care arrangement for children, “a big shift” from just a few years ago. (see our interview with a German litigator) As in a lot of U.S. states, German mothers can block shared parenting and win primary parent status by asserting the existing of conflict. Simply appearing in court without a packaged settlement shows a judge that there is conflict and that shared parenting could therefore be inappropriate.

Prof. Dr. Sünderhauf noted that the “mom wins” aspect of German law is now likely in conflict with EU law, notably the European Convention on Human Rights, articles 8, 14 (see also Protocol 7, Article 5, in which “Spouses shall enjoy equality of rights and responsibilities … in their relations with their children, as to marriage, during marriage and in the event of its dissolution”). The “unless she is too busy smoking crack, it is always in the best interests of children to be with mom” practical outcomes of German courts is in conflict with the Council of Europe Resolution 2079, which made a non-binding recommendation that a “shared residence principle” be adopted by EU states. (In the meantime, what happens to the child of a divorce or separation will be completely different from one EU country to another, but purportedly the child and the parents have the same “rights” in all of these places. Is the EU diluting the term “right” to the point that it is meaningless?)

At a coffee break I asked Prof. Dr. Sünderhauf if Germans could actually be motivated by the cash, given that the numbers were so small compared to most U.S. states’ guidelines. It wasn’t possible to become a middle-income spender by having sex with a high-income earner, as would be straightforward in many U.S. states, was it? (In retrospect, this was a dumb question because the research on Danish men and women shows dramatic responses to child support orders that are similar in financial scale to Germany’s.) She pointed out that wage incomes are a lot lower in Germany than in the U.S. (countries ranked by GDP per capita). When you consider child support from the father plus subsidies for single moms and parents in general from the state, that wage income is taxed, that child support and the various subsidies are tax-free, and that it is possible for a woman to run a portfolio of cash-yielding children (rather than just one), the possibility of collecting maximum dollars through the family law system begins to look more exciting.

[Of course, if Germans were exclusively motivated by cash and fully aware of U.S. law, you’d expect them to fly over to Boston, New York, and Los Angeles to get pregnant with American co-parents and then return to Germany to collect at U.S. rates. (see the “American Child Support Profits Without an American Child” section of “Child Support Litigation without a Marriage”).]

It will be interesting to see how the Europeans resolve these conflicts. In the U.S., the Supreme Court has ruled that states can dispose of children, defendant spouses, etc. more or less as they wish. A child who loses a parent hasn’t been deprived of a “right” under federal law or the Constitution. A parent who loses 110 percent of income to child support and/or alimony can borrow from a relative or go to prison. Even if it turns out that 100 percent of the losers in a state happen to be of one gender, law professors say that isn’t a problem under federal law. But the Europeans can’t seem to resist making grand and vague pronouncements that are supposed to apply to their diverse group of member states (so diverse that often parenting time outcomes are radically different from region to region within an EU country!).

Interesting perspective on the USS Fitzgerald collision


One of the good things about the Web is gathering perspectives from readers who know a lot more than the author.

A comment on “Sleeping Sailors on U.S.S. Fitzgerald Awoke to a Calamity at Sea” (New York Times) looks like a great example of this.

[from Dan Weiss] As an Officer of the Deck (OOD) on USN destroyers for 5 years I stood hundreds of mid-watches (0000-0400) and have the following comments based strictly on what’s been published so far. The tracks indicate Crystal was the privileged vessel, required to maintain course/speed, while Fitzgerald was the burdened vessel, required to change course/speed so as to let Crystal pass ahead. Approximately twenty-five percent of Fitzgerald’s crew of about 300 would have been on watch including Bridge/OOD, multiple radar personnel, and lookouts. In an open water crossing situation Crystal would see Fitzgerald’s “green” starboard running light, while Fitzgerald woud see Crystal’s “red” port running light, meaning Fitzgerald is burdened and must yield. The CO’s I served under were routinely awakened many times a night for these situations and their sea cabins were adjacent to the bridge. The biggest challenge was when we were the privileged vessel and the burdened vessel failed to yield. Merchant ships are/were notorious for sailing on “Iron Mike” (auto pilot) and just kept coming. That doesn’t appear to be the case based on what I’ve gleaned so far. The collision on the starboard side puts the burden of proof on Fitzgerald. Hopefully there will be mitigating circumstances explaining the inexplicable. My sincere condolences to all.

The event surrounding this is sad, of course.


Car- and truck-based attacks will hasten the acceptance of self-driving vehicles?


The news lately has been full of stories about attacks in Western cities by drivers of cars, vans, or trucks. Latest example: “Armed Man Is Killed After Driving Into Police Convoy on Champs-Élysées” (nytimes)

I’m wondering if this will hasten the acceptance of the self-driving vehicle. I dimly remember years ago writing that the transition to self-driving might involve a cliff date beyond which it would become illegal for humans to drive, the theory being that a 6,000 lb. SUV was too dangerous in the hands of a distracted/incompetent human. But if the hazards from human-driven vehicles now include intentional attacks rather than just accidental ones, perhaps the day will come sooner?

This raises the question of how to ensure that self-driving vehicles aren’t themselves converted into weapons. What stops a malevolent person from updating or substituting out the software in a self-driving vehicle? Can this problem be solved technically with trusted systems?

Here’s a scary thought: fearful citizens will demand that the government outlaw privately-owned vehicles. The only vehicles allowed to exist will be not only self-driving, but owned and maintained by the government or government-authorized companies.

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