Columnist Gets it Right on Shared Parenting

Everyday people know a lot more about children’s needs after their parents divorce than family court judges do.
There’s a fair amount of evidence, some of it anecdotal and some of it scientifically based, to the effect that everyday people know a lot more about children’s needs after their parents divorce than family court judges do.  This little exchange supports the idea (Toronto Sun, 9/10/11).

It’s an advice column written by one Amy Dickinson.  Both the father who wrote in and Dickinson seem to understand children’s needs and how mothers game the family court system very well – better, I suspect than most judges.

“Frustrated Father” says that he and his fiancee were together for a long time, and have a 20-month-old daughter.  Three months ago, the couple split up; it was Mom’s decision.  Now she’s seeking to marginalize FF in the little girl’s life.  Specifically, she wants the child to be in daycare rather than in Dad Care.  That’s true despite the fact that putting her in daycare when Mom’s at work would mean the girl would be there from late afternoon until 10:30 PM, i.e. during dinner, bath time and far past bedtime.

Frustrated Father thinks that daycare is a poor substitute for Dad Care and in any case wants to be with his child.  He took three months of parental leave when she was born and seems to sense that this is just a ruse on Mom’s part to try to ease him to the margins of his daughter’s life.

FF also makes a couple of very telling statements.  First he tells Dickinson that he and his ex are having disagreements about visitation.

The fact that a parent has “visitation” at all should be a thing of the past.

Well said, Frustrated Father.  I’ve said it countless times that the very notion of a primary parent and a visitor is disgraceful.  It marginalizes the father and damages the child’s emotional/psychological wellbeing.  Why do either, much less both?  And yet that’s what gets done in family courts, every day, thousands of times a day.

And since we’re on the topic of the effects of the primary custody/visitation paradigm, Frustrated Father ends with this:

I grew up in a split family where I only saw my father every other weekend, and I don’t want that for my child. I truly believe that setup is outdated and fathers should have more rights! What say you?

Bingo.  That postcard from the edge of divorce and custody law should be sent to every family court judge in the country.  Frustrated Father’s been there, done that and doesn’t ever want to be simply an every-other-weekend visitor in his daughter’s life.

And Dickinson replies:

I agree with you on every front.

It is in the best interest of the child to spend as much time as possible with both parents, when both parents are committed, loving and involved — as you obviously are.

Parental care is preferable to day care, especially given the scenario you present in which a toddler would be away from home during dinner, evening, bath and bedtime.

Your child’s pro-social development can be encouraged through playgroups with other parents and toddlers and, later, a nursery school.

Your ex is using this as an excuse to deny your parental rights — and it’s absurd. You need to mediate a common-sense solution — one that is firmly focused on the child’s needs.

You could achieve this working with a mediator if your ex were being reasonable, but you should see a lawyer all the same.

I agree with you that the assumption that the child belongs with the mother with paternal “visitation” is an outmoded model, and I think the courts are moving slowly to recognize this.

Now ask yourself when you last saw a family court judge write something so sensible and straightforward?  When was the last time you heard a judge say that spending as much time as possible with each parent is best for children?

How about the obvious commonsense observation that the mother is using the daycare situation to try to deny FF his parental rights?  Judges usually require far more egregious behavior on the part of mothers before they lift a finger to enforce fathers’ rights to children or children’s rights to fathers.

Where both Dickinson and Frustrated Father go wrong is in their conclusion that the primary parent/visitor arrangement is “outmoded.”  Of course it’s anything but.  After all, they’re in a country that puts the U.S. to shame in its willingness to separate children from their fathers.  Here maternal custody is about 84% of the cases; in Canada it’s over 90%.

And Canada is also a country in which survey after survey shows that the vast majority of citizens support equal parenting time for parents post-divorce.  Based on that, I’d say that Dickinson, although an American, has opinions on child custody in line with the great majority of Canadians.  She understands the concept that children need both parents as long as both are loving and committed to childrearing.

And what Canadians understand agrees with social science on the subject that for some four decades has unambiguously made the point that children need both biological parents.

But as usual, the lawmakers and the judges are the last to know.  The ones with the most influence on the outcomes of custody cases show the weakest grasp of the basics of children’s welfare.  Yes they intone the mantra of the “best interests of the child,” but simultaneously ignore the most important aspect of it – maximum time with both parents.

Maybe Amy Dickinson should get a new job – family court judge.

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