Many readers will be surprised to learn that throughout much of American history, the law presumed that children of divorce would be placed with fathers, not mothers. This presumption lasted through the late 19th century, with the advent of the industrial revolution. After that, society and the courts increasingly saw fathers as the source of financial support and mothers as the source of nurturing and parenting.
Today we are witnessing the consequences if this thinking, which in my view is misguided. Fathers are portrayed in our media as at best unnecessary, and at worst as bumbling and incompetent. Meanwhile, the absence of fathers in the lives of children is leading to delinquency, poor school performance, criminal activity and substance abuse.
I have no intention here of pitting the sexes against one another. I take as a given that children do best when they are bonded with their mothers as well as their fathers, and receive nurturing and deep connection from mother. My personal belief is that each sex brings important characteristics to parenting, and that both are vital to a child’s well being.
The harm has come as, throughout the 20th century, courts, mental health professionals and other decision makers were influenced by the “tender years doctrine” which held that mothers were more crucial to development, while fathers were seen as a source of economic support. This has led to mothers being the custodial parent in the overwhelming majority of divorces, with fathers limited to daytime visits in many cases. My message to both men and women is that fathers are extremely important to a child’s healthy development. My goal here is to persuade custodial parents to allow as much time with non-custodial fathers as possible. Courts are beginning to acknowledge the importance of the non-custodial parent, and in particular fathers, in positive parenting outcomes. I also wish to encourage fathers to get in the game of parenting. Don’t sit on the sidelines; your participation is vital to the happiness and wellbeing of your children, no matter what their age.
EARLY INVOLVEMENT CRITICAL
Attachment is critically important to the health and well-being of children. Studies have suggested links between early attachment problems in infancy, with life-long personality and relationship problems. During the first year of life, healthy children develop attachments to their primary caregivers, and exclude others. They will use a small group of caregivers, usually mothers and fathers, as a “home base,” from which to explore the world. When threatened or challenged, healthy infants retreat to their primary caregiver for security, and then venture out when they feel safe.
Such attachments develop early in life, and therefore I would encourage fathers to become involved as early as possible, and to seek visitations and overnights with their infant children. Feeding times are excellent bonding experiences for baby and parent. Mothers who are breastfeeding can express milk, which can be sent with the child during overnight visits with dad.
The advantage of these early overnights is that they provide an opportunity for physical and emotional bonding between parent and child. I encourage visiting fathers to hold their babies, sing lullabies to them, and to communicate with mom about the bedtime routine. Anyone who has toddlers knows how they love to cuddle. This is important for daddy as well as mommy, and will pay huge relationship dividends down the road for any father willing to put in the time.
One objection may be that a non-custodial parent will often be supporting both homes financially. I encourage non-custodial fathers to do whatever it takes to have this bonding time. Talk to your employer about the importance of this time. It may be time to simplify your lifestyle or find work that allows time to bond with children.
I believe judges, family court mediators and others will respond favorably to requests for infant bonding time, as the trend is toward encouraging the involvement of both parents. Fathers, when you go into a family court mediation, be prepared with a detailed parenting plan. Divorce Life Solutions can help you to create such a plan.
In your plan, discuss the vital importance of bonding with your infant child, and how you plan to parent in the future. Take parenting classes, which are available from numerous sources such as the YMCA or health care professionals. Fathers who go in to mediations talking about the “percentage of time” with their children will not fare well with the mediator or the judge. The word “percentage” is seen as a code word for “I want to reduce my support obligation.” Instead, write out a vision for your new family ahead of time, and be prepared to speak about that family in your own words. Be prepared to discuss how you plan to bond with your infant, and why you feel it important to have time with the child from the beginning. Discuss how eventually you will be involved in schooling, helping with homework, athletics or any other ways you intend to nurture your child. Be prepared to talk about what you will do on vacations. Dream about your future, and make sure your child or children are in the center of those dreams.
This is particularly important, as fathers will not get a second chance at this bonding time later on. This bonding is usually well underway by 12 months, and will be all but completed by age 4 or earlier. During this critical time with your infant, fathers, you are laying the foundation for a healthy relationship with your sons and daughters throughout their childhood and teen years.
It is never too early for non-custodial mothers and fathers to get involved in their children’s daily activities and schooling. Studies have shown dramatically improved post-divorce school performance when there is involvement by both mother and father. There is no need to wait until kindergarten. In most situations, toddlers are in some form of day care so that mother and father can work. Take advantage of this to become involved in your child’s pre-school education. Volunteer to chaperone at the daycare’s next field trip. Go to “show and tell,” and tell the kids about your job. Your daycare provider will be delighted to receive your help reading stories to children or doing crafts. Take every chance you can get to show your child that you love them and care about how they are doing.
TYPE OF SCHOOL INVOLVEMENT CRUCIAL
Studies have shown that good academic outcomes are associated with father-involvement, where this involvement is at a high level. Low-level involvement has been shown to have about the same effectiveness as no involvement whatsoever. Here are some suggestions:
- Be there to help with homework. This is important at any age. Don’t do the homework for the child, but be there to lend a hand. Children of all ages feel empowered when they are able to figure out solutions themselves.
- Attend PTA meetings, and get involved with PTA. Becoming a board member and participating in meeting planning is helpful.
- Get to know your child’s teachers on a first name basis. If your young student is doing poorly in a class, sit in on a class and talk to the teacher about how you can help to improve your child’s performance. Studies are clear that students with active and caring parents simply do better.
- Have your school send duplicate report cards to you and copy you on all letters and e-mails. Ask them to call you on attendance issues. Don’t leave this to the custodial parent—get involved. If necessary, give teachers self-addressed and stamped envelopes to give you information. Be a contact person for extracurricular activities and problems, when they come up.
- Attend as many games, recitals, performances, or plays as is humanly possible. Children love to impress their parents with these performances.
- Offer to be an assistant coach. In this day of budget cuts in education, schools will need all the help they can get to keep athletic, music and art programs running. Offer to drive players to games. Be the “team mom” or “team dad.”
As fathers, we are subject to many social messages that demean our family roles. If you are divorced, you may have experienced having the children you love taken from you involuntarily, with “visitations” substituted for the family time you once had with your children. Or, your divorce may have been a wakeup call for you to be more involved with your children.
Whichever is the case, your involvement is critical. Studies have linked increased crime, drug abuse and risky sexual behaviors to the absence of fathers in the home. The studies also show dramatic increases in academic performance among students with deeply involved fathers. For the good of your children, I urge you not to stand on the sidelines, but to become involved with your children’s lives. Negotiate with your co-parent to obtain overnights with the baby. Chances are she’ll welcome a couple of days off each week. Become involved in pre-school and school activities and help with homework. Become your child’s biggest fan.
When you come before judges and other decision makers, make sure you have a detailed plan as to how you will parent. What is your philosophy on discipline? Take parenting classes. An excellent class which is very popular these days is entitled Redirecting Children’s behavior. Check the Internet for a class near you.
Be prepared to talk about the importance of bonding with your children, and the family life you will create. If you do this well, the family court mediator will have a tear in their eye. Make them understand that your child’s best interests are served by spending time with you, and they will allow a parenting plan with generous time with dad. These professionals want to do what is in the best interests of your children, and you can help them to understand that time with you is in their best interests.