NYT’s Bruni Nails It: ‘There’s no Substitute for Physical Presence’

September 7, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Here’s another fine article by the New York Times’ Frank Bruni (New York Times, 9/5/15). It has nothing to do with divorce, child custody or shared parenting, except that it has everything to do with them. It’s called “The Myth of Quality Time,” and contains this sentence that should be emblazoned on the wall of every family court in the country:

There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.

Bruni tells his readers that, every year, his extended family rents a beach house somewhere and spends a solid week – seven days – together. They thought about making it just a long weekend, but rejected the idea. In the past, Bruni himself would sometimes arrive a couple of days late or leave early. But no longer. Now he stays the whole time because, well, “there’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.” Of course, he’s right.

With a more expansive stretch, there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter.

There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.

We delude ourselves when we say otherwise, when we invoke and venerate “quality time,” a shopworn phrase with a debatable promise: that we can plan instances of extraordinary candor, plot episodes of exquisite tenderness, engineer intimacy in an appointed hour.

And sure enough, with that extended time, that forced togetherness, intimacy happens that otherwise wouldn’t. Bruni recounts several instances of exactly that. Here’s just one:

I know how my 80-year-old father feels about dying, religion and God not because I scheduled a discrete encounter to discuss all of that with him. I know because I happened to be in the passenger seat of his car when such thoughts were on his mind and when, for whatever unforeseeable reason, he felt comfortable articulating them.

Similar intimacies came from a niece as she and Bruni went for a run on the beach.

Why this information tumbled out of her then, with pelicans overheard and sweat slicking our foreheads, I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that I’m even more tightly bonded with her now, and that’s not because of some orchestrated, contrived effort to plumb her emotions. It’s because I was present. It’s because I was there.

Yes, because he was there. These moments can’t be planned or stage managed. Real intimacy comes when it comes and at no other time. It comes when the time is right for the person offering a look inside. It’s a moment built out of unknown, unseen materials that perfectly supports the trust, the candor, the revelation.

While Bruni is writing about his extended family whose members seem to be well integrated with each other, his words apply to families that have been broken up and cast to the four winds by the brutal logic of family courts and family laws. They apply particularly well to children and their non-custodial parents, the great majority of whom are fathers.

There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.

It’s that physical presence that courts deny non-custodial parents and their children. No amount of every-other-weekend visitations can provide that basic necessity. Non-custodial parents know it and children know it, just as Bruni does. Non-custodial Dad becomes Disneyland Dad because he knows intuitively that what his child needs and what he needs will never come in the few hours allotted to them by the court. His child sees quickly enough who the “real” parent is. She’s the one who’s there 80% or more of the time. Those magic moments Bruni describes occur between the custodial parent and the child simply because they can.

What Bruni describes in accurate and moving detail is what family courts deny to non-custodial parents and their children. They deny it as predictably as the sunrise. It is the core of the parent-child relationship – the opportunity to be a parent to your child and a child to your parent.

The idea that a real parent-child relationship can flourish without that substantial physical presence? That’s a myth.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

#parenting, #sharedparenting, #DisneylandDads, #non-custodialparent

One reply on “NYT’s Bruni Nails It: ‘There’s no Substitute for Physical Presence’”

I agree this is a great start, but the courtroom will need an additional message:
“Kids need both parents”

With just “There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence,” we assume that judges understand and appreciate the importance of both parents.

It might not hurt to add “a couple days of ‘quality time ‘ is not enough”

For people with entrenched beliefs, you sometimes have to spell it out

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *