January 5, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
In the U.K., Work and Pensions Minister, Iain Duncan Smith, is proposing that the government fix a problem government created. Now, that sounds like a responsible thing for government to do, but of course it’s not. That’s because the proposed fix has little or nothing to do with the problem. Read about it here (Daily Mail, 1/1/15).
Now, Smith is one of the better-informed of the British ministers, so I don’t want to be too harsh on him. He’s promoted greater equality in parental access to children post-divorce, albeit unsuccessfully, and for that he gets high marks. But his current initiative is to teach fathers how to be fathers for the purpose of reducing the rate of family breakdown. Needless to say, there are a lot of problems with that approach to the problem.
Parenting classes for men are to be launched after a survey showed Britain’s 16-year-olds are now more likely to own a smartphone than have a father living at home.
Iain Duncan Smith says today that radical steps are needed to reverse the collapse in the two-parent family, which means that a million children are growing up without the influence of a father.
The Work and Pensions Secretary said the Government is planning to offer classes in parenting, tailored only for men, to rival the traditional ante-natal sessions attended by most pregnant women…
Mr Duncan Smith told the Daily Mail: ‘It is not only the bond between a mother and her child which makes a real difference to a child’s life, it is the bond between a father and his child too.
‘The problem of absent fathers is far too common — with households left worse off and, more importantly, children left without the positive involvement of two parents in their life.’
Let’s see. The man knows that children need two parents in their lives to give them the best possible chance of success throughout life including emotional and physical health. And his idea of how to accomplish this is to teach fathers how to be better parents.
To be charitable, classes to teach men how to be better parents sound like a good idea. I’m sure a lot of them could use the information and possibly their children might benefit. So, parenting classes; jolly good.
But my cynical side wonders, “Since these classes are to be offered by the government, what exactly will be taught?” After all, at this point, the government in the form of family courts has not the slightest idea of what fathers do or how they benefit their kids. One way we know that is that they routinely conclude that a father who spends most of his waking hours working and earning to support his family is, in some way, not much of a parent. According to that understanding, mothers who bathe, feed and read to little Andy or Jenny are good parents. Indeed, they’re far better parents than fathers who earn the money to pay for the shelter, the food, the clothes, the medical care, the education that the child receives. We know those judges think that because they routinely give sole or primary custody to mothers, despite the vast majority of fathers being fully fit to care for their kids.
Another way we know courts don’t have a clue about what children need from their parents is that they’re not taught it. When one British organization inquired of the Judicial College what social science it utilizes to instruct judges in what promotes the best interests of children, it was told that the JC had no such science and wouldn’t use it to educated judges if it did.
So, of what exactly would Mr. Duncan Smith’s parenting classes actually teach fathers who attend? It’s a good question and one I’m not at all confident of the answer.
‘As a society, we must do more to nurture loving family relationships and encourage parental attachment. Government has a role to play too. That is why we are introducing relationship support for fathers, and families as a whole. If we are serious about promoting a strong society, then we also have to be serious about seeking to support and strengthen families.’
Again, jolly good. But Duncan Smith seriously misperceives the problem and the role that government has to play in solving it.
First, the clear assumption of the program is that, in some way, it’s fathers who are breaking up families, when we know that mothers are far more likely to file for divorce than are dads. So one place to start ameliorating family breakdown would be to make it less enticing for either parent to tear up the contract.
That of course means instituting equal parenting post-divorce as the rule instead of the vanishingly rare exception. Research here in the U.S. demonstrates that mothers file for divorce more than do fathers because they know they’ll get the kids. Fathers fear divorce because they know they’ll be rendered irrelevant in their children’s lives by the court and by Mom should she choose to interfere with his already meager access to his kids. So, overwhelmingly, mothers file for divorce and fathers don’t.
By contrast, shared parenting would probably reduce the incidence of divorce because neither parent would “win” the parenting time sweepstakes. But even if the rate of divorce remained the same despite a presumption of shared parenting being enacted into law, at least the kids wouldn’t lose a parent in the process. And that of course is the chief detriment to children when their parents split up. Kids can navigate divorce a lot better if they don’t lose a parent in the process. And aren’t we most concerned about the well-being of children?
Second, I can just imagine the scene at the end of one of Mr. Duncan Smith’s parenting courses. One man raises his hand and asks, “I understand now all about how to be a better father. I understand how children do better with two parents actively involved in their lives. And I’ve always intended to do just that. But do divorce courts understand that, too? Because it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, either for me or my child, for me to invest all this emotional energy into being a hands-on dad, only to have my child snatched away when Mom decides to move on.”
I wonder what the teacher would say to that. Indeed, if Dad did increase his caregiving, wouldn’t he become even more important to his child? And wouldn’t that make the standard visitation order all the more hurtful to the child? And wouldn’t the court’s usual refusal to enforce access by the beloved father be even more onerous?
The point being, why should fathers make radical changes if the outcome of divorce remains the same? And let’s not forget that that’s precisely what’s been happening. Massive datasets maintained by, for example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the United States and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development demonstrate that fathers are spending almost as much time in hands-on parenting as are mothers, but child custody orders almost universally fail to reflect the fact. In almost 20 years, the percentage of primary maternal custody has barely changed in the U.S. and in the U.K. and Canada it may not have changed at all.
So my hypothetical student asks a pithy question.
Then of course there are the sometimes generous financial inducements to divorce in the form of child support and alimony. I’ve mentioned before how those both encourage divorce by the lower wage-earning spouse and discourage marriage by the higher earner. In short, the same government that encourages mothers to divorce by ensuring they’ll get the kids gilds the lily by offering cash rewards as well for doing so.
This is the same government that now tells us it’s attacking the problem of family breakdown by offering classes to fathers. Really. Government ministers may not know the obvious, but British fathers do. There actually is a policy that would go a long way toward solving the problem of fatherless children. It’s called equally shared parenting. Remember that, Mr. Duncan Smith? It’s that thing the Cameron/Clegg government explicitly rejected when it last amended the law on child custody.
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shared parenting, fatherlessness, children's welfare, family breakdown