Undermining the Family

Posted by in News & Culture

People across North America are outraged at the thought of government interference in the raising of children. The story involves a 10-year custody battle, a willful child, meddling attorneys, and a father who “feels like he’s lost his daughter”. You can read more about this story from Quebec in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and in an AFP news article.

The short version of the story is that a 12-year-old girl defied her father when she was grounded from the internet. Dad then told her she could not attend a camping trip sponsored by her school. The child appealed to her attorney who convinced a judge to allow the trip. Now, bloggers are outraged that a father’s authority has been undermined by the courts.

One of my favorite bloggers, Al Mohler, wrote: “For years, we have been warned that the courts were poised to usurp parental authority.” Hinting that the courts in Canada are out of control and we may be next, Mohler warns: “America’s parents had better look north and take notice. This judicial atrocity hits very close to home.”

The biggest threat facing the family is not judicial interference. (Nor – as I’ve written before – is it same sex marriage.) The biggest threat to marriage and the family is divorce.

Look again at the opening paragraph above. This is a story about a 12-year-old whose parents have been involved in a custody battle since she was two. When she ran to her lawyer to complain about dear-old-dad being too strict, she was simply following through with what her parents have taught her to do.

Children function best when both biological parents are married to each other. Decisions about camping trips are supposed to be made by mom and dad. Most parents – even divorced parents – can accomplish this most basic of parental tasks. A few can’t. They run back and forth to the judge so she can decide the most elementary of parental decisions. High conflict custody battles are marked by repeated trips to court to solve the problems most divorced parents take care of with a phone call to their ex. Since children often get caught in the middle of warring parents more interested in continuing the battle than in caring for their child, it is common for the court to appoint an attorney whose job is to make sure at least one adult is more interested in the child than the war.

I think the child’s attorney – and the judge – made poor decisions. But I think the outrage and dire warnings are misplaced in this case.

So… let me see if I can offer an alternative to the picture of a martyred father who is outraged by judicial interference to his paternal authority. I can easily imagine two parents with more money (to spend on lawyers) than common sense. Mom and Dad have been litigating for ten years. One makes a decision, the other files suit, and the judge has to decide. The child grows up with the belief that neither parent’s decisions mean much until someone in a black robe makes a ruling.

Dad had no authority to be usurped. He and his ex had given away their authority ten years earlier when they decided to litigate rather than be parents to their child. The court hasn’t usurped anything; the judge merely filled a void left by parents who substituted custody battles for parenting.

If we want to protect the rights of parents to actually be parents, we need to cut the divorce rate. Anything less than mom and dad living under the same roof in a happy, healthy, functional marriage is damaging to children. When divorce does occur, parents have to be able to make decisions together without involving the courts. The child above would not have had her own court-appointed attorney if her parents weren’t involved in a high-conflict custody battle. Don’t blame the courts for doing what the parents asked of them. And don’t blame the child for learning how to work the system in which she’s been raised.

Do blame both mom and dad for choosing to have a child together when they were apparently ill-prepared to be parents.

And take a look around: if your church and your community isn’t doing all they can to make marriages successful, then be willing to accept a tiny amount of blame yourself.