If I were to pass legislation to improve the Family Courts, I would not want to pass a joint custody assumption or a 50-50 shared parenting time assumption or anything of the sort. I’d put forth a “Make No Assumptions” Family Law bill. I would prefer that the courts not be involved in families at all. If you are the two parents whose relationship resulted in bringing a new life into this world, you already share a child. Why look to the court to give you something you already have? The only time a court should be concerned about the relationships in your family is if someone or something is denying with or interfering with your right to participate in that relationship. Other than that, it should be up to you to determine how parenting should be split, based on numerous different factors, and if you have to look to a court for a decision, they should have to look at those numerous different factors, too. A split down the middle might be the right way to go, but it might not be. We should also keep in mind that parenting is not just about time with the children. It is about much more. Raising a child is not an equal proposition. It’s not a perfect science, and it is definitely not fair. 50-50 is something we invented to seem fair, but is it fair? Is it fair to the child? What about the parent who works evenings, whose kids are in school all day? Should we still give evening time, to be fair, even though the parent cannot be there? If that parent has every weekend with the child, is that fair and equal to the parent who gets zero weekends? Kids do not always feel close to both parents equally, at all times. That is just the nature of life, love and the intricacies of a relationship, and it isn’t always fair. If parents come to court to settle parenting time disputes, shouldn’t the court have to look at all of the factors of the case and then decide what makes sense for that family over what is fair?
Let me explain why I believe that courts should not make assumptions about custody, or even parenting time.
In Minnesota, the courts use the Best Interests of the Children Standards when there is a Custody dispute. That standard is often applied in parenting time disputes as well. Many legal experts admit that these standards are out of date. Personally, I feel that the Best Interest standards are a myth, just like much of what Family Court tries to do to “Case Manage” families, is a myth. Families cannot and should not be case managed, and who is qualified to determine anyone’s best interest?
The interesting thing about the best Interest of the Child Standard is that the courts have gone to a shared parenting assumption throughout the nation. It may not be law in every state, but it is the line of thinking behind the scenes. Research shows that children do better in life when they have involvement and on-going contact with both of their parents, whether in the marital home, or after the marriage has ended. Shared parenting, one could say, is in the “Best Interests of the Child”. I am not arguing that fact. Whenever possible, both mom and dad should continue to be involved parents for their children. What I am going to argue here is whether or not the courts are actually concerning themselves with the best interest of the child, or more with the best interest of the parent. Is giving a parent 50% of a child’s time/life about the child, or about the parents perceived “right” of fairness?
There is research out there that shows children of married parents do better than children of unmarried parents. Should a court force a couple to stay married because of that research? How can you force a relationship between two people? Still, Family Courts do try to force their idea of shared parenting on families and it has been a disaster. They instill parental “rights”, and when parents fight over those shared rights, there is no one actually looking at the “rights” or needs of the child. The child becomes lost in the battle. The battles are almost always a dispute about what dad wants or what mom wants, and judges decide which parent “wins”. Children are an unseen entity that everyone loses sight of. They are usually not in the court and rarely given a voice. Of course age has to do with that somewhat, but even older children are excluded from the process.
I do agree that a child has 2 parents with equal rights, and those parents share the rights to that child. I really hesitated writing that last sentence because to say a child belongs to both parents, or anyone has the “rights” to each other seems highly adversarial and enslaving. It creates a misconception that a person could be the property of someone. We do not own our children. We have been blessed with being given a relationship with them and a responsibility to care for them. We have to recognize that both people are the parents of the child, and the child was born to those two individuals who produced the child. I do not want to use words that imply “ownership”. None of us have a “right” to another person. Maybe we need to call it “relationship with”, and rather than protecting “parental rights”, we should protect the “parental relationship”. When you think in terms of a relationship with someone, you can then realize that a relationship cannot be proclaimed. If you want to have a relationship with another human being, you have to cultivate and cherish that relationship. You have to honor and respect the other person if you want to keep them in relationship with you. This applies to a co-parent and it applies to your child. It applies to every person with whom you intend to have an ongoing relationship, and asking a court to proclaim it for you will never create the relationship you hope to have with your child, former spouse that you parent with, or anyone else.
If we want to look at best interest of a child, we need to look at best interest according to whom? I certainly would not want anyone deciding what was in my best interest because they would have to know my history and what things have happened in my life that forged the person I am today. They would have to know my heart, and what makes me tick. They would have to know what my passions are, what I am interested in and what I am not interested in. They would have to know what family means to me, because it means different things to different people. Some people could care less about blood relationships and more about caring relationships in their lives, than they care who shares DNA. They would have to know my life experience from birth, and there is just no way that they could. So who is the best authority on what is in anyone best interests? As you ponder that question, you can see, that is a tough one to answer.
Maybe it should be the best interest of the family. What do little Mary and Johnny need? What do mom and dad need? What does the family need to make this transition easier for all? What has happened in their past? What are their dreams for the future? Can a family find that kind of help in the legal system? No, they cannot. You can ask for court orders, but try to get enforcement when another individual is truly opposed to something. Asking for court orders also creates a bad pattern for your life because the only authority courts have over your family exists now, because of a minor child. If you have to force children to be in relationship with you, what happens when they turn 18? A parent had better hope to cultivate, honor and respect that relationship so that it still exists when a child becomes an adult. Court can only ever be a temporary fix. You will need to figure it out at some point, or you just might lose it all in the end.
The reason that no one should make assumptions about families is because families are complex. Is it fair when one parent wants the relationship with their children, but not the responsibility for them? Families are made up of individuals and relationships. They have different passions. They have different personalities. They have different schedules. There may be good reason why the parents do not interact. There may be good reasons why a parent should not have 50% of their children’s time. Parents have to look at time, not as a reflection of their value as a parent, but rather as the value of their child’s life and activities and interests. Life cannot be scheduled on weekends and mom’s time/dad’s time, and be fair to everyone. Life happens on its own schedule and in its own time frame. Events and milestones happen when they happen. Parents and children have different time frames of healing from trauma, and let me tell you that there are very few things in life as traumatic as divorce, especially divorce with children.
In a perfect world, we would stop talking in terms of “Parental Rights” and the “best interest of the children” and start honoring and respecting the family relationships and dynamics. These things cannot be legislated or court ordered. We can and do have laws to protect parental relationships so that parents are never denied time with their children, or restricted in building a relationship with their children. Denying and restricting time is something that not only warring parents try to do, but courts do as well, and there are laws that are supposed to prevent that, if only those would be enforced. Naysayers will always remind me about safety and abuse, but if the Family Court would get out of relationships, the criminal courts could and should deal with abuse and neglect issues where they exist.
Children are not property and society needs to stop treating them as such. We are destroying beautiful children as we carve up their lives into the ownership of percentages of time, and we are setting them up for failure. They are also being given a horrible example of how to build and cultivate healthy relationships and work through relationship conflict. We have to do better as a society with honoring and respecting each other as the beautiful, wondrous people that we are.