PRAIRIE VOICES: Shared parenting

More and more states tailor their custody laws to recognize that children need both mother, father, Colorado author and psychologist says

By Dorreen Yellow Bird
Herald Staff Writer

Shirley Thomas, author and clinical psychologist

The American Psychological Association referred the Herald to Thomas as a specialist in the psychology of custody issues and divorce. The Herald called the association to talk about those issues in connection with the North Dakota Shared Parenting Initiative, which is likely to be on the state ballot in November.
Thomas, who holds a doctoral degree in psychology from the University of Colorado, directs court-certified divorce education programs in the Boulder, Colo., area and is the author of three co-parenting books.
Thomas lives in Longmont, Colo.

In North Dakota, a parenting initiative is likely to go before the voters in November. It is about the custody of children after a divorce. It declares that "absent a finding of parental unfitness, parents retain joint legal and joint physical custody of their children" and that "parents shall develop a joint parenting plan, or if they can not agree to such a plan, the court shall facilitate production of a parenting plan with them."

If the initiative passes, what will be the likely result?
Every state is struggling with the issue of responsibilities between the parents and how the needs of the children should be addressed.
You're using the term "shared parenting." That means parents have an obligation to put their heads together and develop a plan for how their children are going to be raised once they no longer have a relationship, rather than leave that up to the state. Part of the discussion is the court's responsibilities versus how much the parents should do themselves.
It sounds like the initiative you're talking about would require parents to develop their shared parenting plan. That would not bear on how much time each parent spends with the children, but would bear on writing their intentions about much time each one spends and who would make decisions for the children.
Every state, including North Dakota, is trying to turn more responsibility to the parents -- and what they file, they'll be held to.
A majority of parents, in most states, willingly sit down and write out a parenting plan. Seventy percent of all parents can and do that with no problem, but 30 percent of parents argue and disagree about a parenting plan. It's this 30 percent that everyone is worried about. The initiative, therefore, is telling this 30 percent that they have the responsibility to work out a parenting plan for their children.
So, the word "shared" can mean the child lives in one home 90 percent of the time or in each home 50 percent of time. The amount of time the children spend with each parent is a separate question from the fact they are making up a parenting plan and will file it in court.
In default, when parents cannot and will not, the court then will set up the parenting plan.
When they use the word "shared" in any kind of legislation, they mean that we are working toward a model in our country where both parents continue to take part in children's lives as opposed to one parent raising the children with the other parent "visiting" the children.
I don't know if North Dakota still uses the term visitation, but Colorado, does not use this term. We used the word "parenting time." That means parents do not "visit" their own children, they "parent" them, even if they only have 5 percent of the time with them.
The change we are undergoing is that parents are more and more required to make their own parenting plan, and they are required more and more to get along with one another.

When we called the American Psychological Association for information about custody and divorce, they gave us a list of specialists in those subjects, and your name was on the list. Does the association have an official position on shared parenting?
I believe the association is neutral. There has been a national movement, and the national psychological association is on top of it. They say there is no inherent bias in favor of either parent, but there always is discussion going on as to what is good for children. Every state uses a "what's best for the children" standard.
How would the North Dakota initiative affect children?
It would affect children to the extent that parents are able to work out a parenting plan. Even though the parents are living separately, the children still have both of them as parents. That is true whether the parents are married and living together or never married and never lived together, but the child knows and has a relationship with each one.
Research has found that the most important thing for children is how the parents get along with one another. That is, in fact, more important than how much time is spent in each home. It is somewhat unrelated to the matter of child support, except that in reality, parents who are left out of the parenting plan tend not to pay their child support because feel they aren't involved in making the parenting plan. Research shows that, too.

Some critics say the initiative's supporters simply are trying to get out of paying some child support. Do you think there is any merit in that claim?
It may be that the child support issue is part of why this initiative is being introduced. It balances the amount of payments and the amount of time spent.
As a mental health professional, I usually don't get into the matter of figuring child support. But, in reality, people do tie child support to time spent with the child. There is no way of separating the two in the view of parents who are disgruntled because they are not included in the child's life, yet they have to pay.
It long has been believed that women tend to be better caretakers of children. Does research support that?
No. There is a change going on with the roles of fathers and mothers in our country. There is no proof that women and better caretakers than fathers, especially with the redefinition of the roles in which we have many stay-at-home fathers. Many fathers are at home with infants while mothers go back to their jobs. That is part of the change in roles that happened since the 1960s.
Historically, mothers were assigned most of the early-life caretaking duties of babies and infants. That is an extension of the fact that they bore the children. There was some belief that children were born with relationships to mothers. There may be something to the fact that mothers take naturally to motherhood, while fathers have to be shown how to care for infants.

But what we are finding is that when fathers are involved, they are able to do the early-life caretaking just as well as mothers.
The expectations are different, but they are equally important. So, to carry on with the belief that all early-life caretaking should be done by mothers is old-fashioned thinking and not supported by research.
A woman is important to the growth of a female into puberty. The mother becomes an important teacher and role model for this transition. She can help a sons grow into adulthood, too. Can a father do these as well?
Yes, a father can do these as well. There is a line of thinking that agrees with your statement that a mother can help a daughter. But daughters need to relate to their fathers equally as well in order to learn how to talk to the opposite sex and how to enter into relationships as they grow older.
One of the roles of each parent is to interact with the child of the opposite sex in an appropriate way, so the child is comfortable emerging into adolescence.
As far as feminine hygiene and the puberty changes that the bodies go through, especially with girls, girls do need time with their mothers to learn, confide and be shown how to do things. But they don't need to be in the home full time for that education to take place. In custody situations, they can be told when go to the mother's home. Sensitive fathers also can talk with girls about menstruation.
So, you're saying that the proposal for shared parenting sounds reasonable and could benefit both parents and child?
It sounds like a reasonable proposal to me and is in line with what's happening across our country as far everyone believing and getting on board with the fact that children need both parents.
Any final words?
I would encourage the people in your area to take advantage of parent education programs. Along with the books, there is information out there. It is part of the culture change, and young people should avail themselves to these sources.


I have one small problem with this essay:
"There may be something to the fact that mothers take naturally to motherhood, while fathers have to be shown how to care for infants."
Many mothers do NOT "take naturally to motherhood." Many fathers DO take naturally to parenthood! I've know more than a handful of new moms that have to be taught how to breastfeed. Some never learn.
Raise your hands: How many of us went with our former wives to child-birth and parenting classes before our kids were born? Did dads learn more than moms, or was it about the same?
I dare say most cases of shaken-baby are attributed to mothers. True, mom's boyfriend comes in a close second. Some people are born with a sense of rhythm, some with a natural sense of parenting. But such traits are not specific to race or gender.
Nevertheless, I must applaud the Grand Forks Herald on their objective and balanced published opinions.
Don, the 14%er