July 21, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
At the International Conference on Shared Parenting in Boston this past May, we were privileged to hear a presentation by psychologist Jennifer Harman. We’re equally privileged to read her article on maternal gatekeeping penned along with Attorney Nancy Shannon and registered nurse Shawna Thompson (Omaha World Herald, 7/20/17). Entitled “Maternal Gatekeeping Hurts Children,” the authors pull no punches. Good for them.
I’ve written a fair amount lately about parental alienation, the scurrilous campaign of disinformation about it and efforts to remedy its pernicious effects. I’ve always viewed maternal gatekeeping as, in part, simply one end of the spectrum of alienating behavior that includes everything from the seemingly innocent (“Don’t put the diaper on that way! Here, let me do it!”) to child abduction and even murder. Gatekeepers aren’t necessarily alienators, but their need to separate the child from its father partakes of similar motivations.
And of course the result of gatekeeping behavior – the marginalization of Dad - and that of alienation can be similar as well. So awareness of the many detriments to children of growing up fatherless is necessary to an understanding of maternal gatekeeping.
Over the past few decades, research has shown the importance of fathers to their children’s well-being. These studies indicate children in father-absent environments are almost four times more likely to live in poverty, are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, have significantly lower educational attainment and are more likely to be prematurely sexually active.
Children in father-absent environments are also more likely to engage in juvenile delinquency, have higher risk of being victimized by crime, including sexual assault and domestic violence, and are more than twice as likely to commit suicide.
Despite those by-now-well-known facts, courts and mothers are often more than willing to kick Dad to the curb.
Despite this information, many people still fail to understand the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. According to research by Joan Berlin Kelly, 50 percent of mothers “see no value in the father’s continued contact with his children after a divorce.”
That is as close to a mind-blowing statistic as we’re likely to see anywhere. That some half of all mothers see no value in their children’s relationship with their fathers following divorce, in the face of all the information we have about fathers’ value to kids, is as astonishing as it is outrageous.
Kelly’s work is backed up by a survey done by the Administration for Children and Families.
This research is consistent with a recent report by the Federal Administration for Children and Families that describes “maternal gatekeeping,” in which mothers interfere with fathers’ access to their children. According to this report, “more than half of nonresident fathers offered accounts of gatekeeping behavior, ranging from refusing to grant physical access to making frequent last-minute schedule changes. Gatekeeping also came in more indirect forms, such as refusal to communicate in person or by phone, withholding information from the father about the child or berating the father.”
Of course that behavior too is well known; it’s been reported by countless non-custodial parents for decades now. And yet courts continue to fail to enforce the orders they themselves have issued. It’s one of the many travesties of the family court system that, again in the face of all the science on the value of fathers to kids, courts routinely refuse to compel mothers to allow fathers even the meager time ordered by the court.
Harman, et al grasp the concept.
Judges need our help to stop these behaviors. Everyone needs to understand that mothers (or any parental figure in a child’s life) who engage in these behaviors are harming their children.
Yes, obviously maternal gatekeeping harms children. It also harms the rest of us. I can’t begin to guess at the amount of money and other resources this society throws at the effects of fatherlessness. How much do we spend on prisons, remedial education, job programs, mental health resources, drug and alcohol treatment facilities, etc.? If every child grew up with a father in its life, we’d spend a lot less and be a much healthier, happier and more productive society than we are now. Among everything else, fatherlessness is a public health issue, perhaps the single most important one.
If a parent was beating a child in public, most people would intervene either by trying to stop the abuse or by calling the authorities. Mothers who limit fathers’ access to their children, who engage in maternal gatekeeping or who interfere with father-child relationships should be treated the same way.
What they’re doing isn’t funny or appropriate. It’s child abuse. It’s also emotional domestic violence directed at the other parent as a way to control them by damaging their relationships with their children.
That’s about the size of it. Good for Harman, et al for publicizing this destructive behavior and calling for an end to it. And good for the Omaha World Herald for publishing their piece. Nebraska is no friend to fathers and their kids, but the OWH is becoming a reliable voice for reform.
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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.