I was recently asked by a Commissioner, “Ms. Long, would it be fair to ask, in your opinion, should parents focus more on their children’s needs and desires rather than how much parenting time they receive?” Since I was acting as an expert witness to this case, I provided a standard answer, “The children shall be the center focus, and the decisions made are based on the children’s best interests.” After leaving the court room I began to ponder more about this question, and explored what the true meaning of “best interests of the child.”
Although there does not appear to be a definitive answer for what “the best interests of the child means”, the ‘best interests’ concept derives from the courts determining several key factors (child welfare.gov):
1. The emotional ties and bonding between the parent(s) or caregivers, including siblings.
2. The capacity of the parents to provide a safe environment, with adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical.
3. The mental and physical health needs of the children.
4. The mental and physical health needs of the parents.
5. The presence of any past or present Domestic Violence within the home.
6. The presence of any subastance abuse issues.
7. The child’s wishes (depends on age and maturity).
While the above listed key factors are obvious and shall be taken into account when determining parenting time, we must review some other relevant factors that may be possibly secretly denied by the courts or argued by the attorneys/parties. Children do not come with a price tag, nor are children up for sale. Parents who argue about 30%, 50%, 70%, etc. of parenting time and negotiate who decides what the children can and cannot do may pose long-term negative consequences to these children. Parenting plans are legal binding and if they are not followed as written, one or both parents may be found in contempt of law. Contempt, in layman’s terms, is a legal order that is not being followed and a Judge may issue all sorts of penalties, including jail time and financial payment. Parents argue all the time in court, disagree on what the parenting plan says, do not follow the parenting plan as written, etc. What about the children, their wishes and desires? A 3-year-old has different developmental and emotional needs than a 12-year-old; and a 14-year-old is focusing more about their social lives, extra-curricula activities and education rather than their arguing patents. Yet, parents continue to argue in court about the well being of their children and following a legal document that may be outdated or no longer applicable to their children’s needs. PARENTS…IF NEITHER OF YOU ARE PUTTING YOUR CHILDREN IN HARMS WAY (DV, abuse of any kind, substance abuse, and providing their basic needs); please reflect on what your child’s best interests are and stay out of court! Possibly some parents are unable to co-parent, however, YOU can still do what is ‘right’ for your child/teen. Put your feelings aside and listen to your children.
Although, it is hard to determine what is the ‘best interests’ of your child, especially when two parents do not agree, here are some guidelines to follow:
1. What is the age of your child and where are they at developmentally? Research the developmental stages of children and use this as a resource or tool for your parenting arrangements.
2. In the whole grand scheme of things, does it really matter if your child stayed an extra day with the other parent? Or do you expect make-up time for that one extra day? (Of course this matters if this is continuous behavior, abused by one parent and the age of the child).
3. Allow your child to participate in extra curricular activities. Both parents shall encourage this rather than state, ‘it’s my time and I will decide whether my child is allowed to participate during my time.’ Who does this really hurt?
4. Allow your child to attend birthday parties, sleepovers, and other social events regardless who’s parenting time it is. So what if you see your child every other weekend; your child will be grateful for these unselfish acts of their parents. Yes, do spend quality time with your children and balance this out with their friends and activities.
5. Have a parenting plan that is developmentally appropriate for the age of your child/children. For example, your 16-year-old teenager is closer to being an adult and shall have some say about their living arrangements and how they live their life. Of course, they still need the guidance from their parents, but not have their parents in court arguing over the amount of time each parent is allowed, or how many phone calls they receive.
6. Allow your child to feel as ‘normal’ as possible while growing up. Spend quality time with them and allow them to grow and mature. It’s a balancing act; find the balance. If you live further than 50 miles from your children’s main residence, possibly stay closer (if affordable or have somewhere to stay) to their school community so your children do not miss out on too much. Plan summer getaways, holidays and breaks as the time for family adventure (unless you have a teenager and they have other obligations such as work or activities – give them plenty of notice so they can plan).
Overall, this is not just about the parents…it is also about your children and what their needs and wants are (age appropriate). Stay away from the courts and quit arguing about everything, these children grow quickly and you will miss the precious moments if you cannot quit arguing with the other parent. These children are watching both parents and these children need their parents presence.
Written By Rochelle Long, MA, LMHC