Question of the week: What custody arrangement is best for the children?


I have people ask me this question quite often. Usually it is children’s ministers or church leaders who don’t have much experience with divorce and or single parenting issues. Nationally there is a huge debate on this issue. Let’s take a step back in history to help you understand some of the issues in this debate.

In 1969 when the then Governor Ronald Reagan signed the no-fault divorce decree into effect, courts automatically assigned full custody of the children to the mother. It was thought at that time that mothers were the nurturing parent. That was before many women were in the workforce and a time when a majority of homemakers were women. Many courts, lawyers and judges tossed around the phrase “in the best interest of the child” and the thinking was the child’s best interest was to be with the mother.

In today’s world, more men want to be actively involved in the care of their children. Men today tend to be more nurturing than in generations past.

Roles have evolved

More women have entered the workforce. It’s not unusual to see mothers that have higher paying and more stressful jobs than fathers.

At the same time, fathers are demanding more time with their children after separation or divorce. Many want to be able to actively parent their children–rather than only seeing them every other weekend and maybe a few hours on a weeknight.

Changes in the world of divorce

Over the years a lot has changed in the divorce world. Terms that now float around and can be confusing are

  • Joint custody
  • Co-parenting
  • Shared parenting
  • Shared care
  • Shared physical care
  • Equal parenting
  • Sole custody
  • Non custodial parent
  • Custodial parent
  • Unmarried fathers
  • Family mediation
  • Collaborative divorce

It’s enough to make one’s head spin. Every state has it’s own laws regarding divorce. For instance some states require a waiting period of a year before a divorce can be granted after a couple has filed and lived apart for a year. Other states only require a couple to file, live apart for a month and then the divorce can be granted in thirty days. Custody arrangements vary widely also.

What are the laws in your state?

For people working with or ministering to divorce it is important to find out what the laws are in your state. Find out what terminology is used in your area. With the laws changing rapidly in various states, it is important to check periodically what the laws are where you live.

For instance, the site Dads Divorce says that currently Utah, Maine, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas all have either passed bills or bills have been introduced to regarding shared or equal custody. The Wall Street Journal says there are over 20 states now considering changing the laws to give fathers more rights to raising their children after a divorce.

Before we go any further in this discussion let me say that I am not advocating for one situation over the other. I know is that God hates divorce and research continues to say that children do better overall in two-parent homes than in divorced situations.

Time magazine reports the most current research from the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health says that most children overall have less stress when living with both parents. In other words, kids will fare better when they have equal exposure to both parents on a daily basis. Of course, there are exceptions– such as times when one of the parents is violent or a drug abuser.

There are a lot of variables in any divorcing situation. If the family is not together, most children will do better in an arrangement where the parenting is shared.  Even so, clearly there are situations where kids will do better living with the mother only or the father only.

A few things to consider when talking about custody issues

If you are a church leader, children’s minister or youth minister, keep in mind that it is best that an attorney or mediator take the lead in advising the best option for custody arrangements.

However, for your background, here are some things you might want to consider when counseling or talking with parents in your ministry. This information will also give you better perspective on how the legal system decides custody arrangements:

  • Income levels, such as poverty of one or both parents; do both parents work and have equal pay; is one parent better able to provide a higher standard of living than the other?
  • Work schedules where one parent has to travel and or be away from the home for long periods of time.
  • Does either parent have mental health issues that would affect their parenting ability?
  • The nurturing capability of either or both parents.
  • Are the parents able to converse without fighting?
  • Is either parent addicted to a substance such as drugs or alcohol?
  • How well the father communicates with the children including both sons and daughters.
  • Is the divorce due to spousal abuse or child abuse? Children’s physical as well emotional well being may be at stake.

What’s being ignored in the legal debate on shared or equal parenting

The following is adapted from a video podcast Joanie Winberg hosts called “The Divorce Talk Show.” This show’s guest is Mark Baer, “Divorce Support – 4 Issues that Equal Parenting Advocates Ignore”

  • The pretense is everyone wants to take care of the kids. This isn’t always true.
  • Kids can’t just be divided up equally. They are kids not objects.
  • Good parents are flexible, not just wanting to get their own way. They want what is best for their children.
  • High-conflict divorce where the parents are still fighting, arguing and putting the children in the middle.
  • Regarding teens, they like to spend time with their peers more than with either parent

What I do know

  • I have known children who were raised in a shared parenting situation who are doing well in their adult lives.
  • I have also known children who were raised in a sole custody situation who are thriving as adults.
  • I know some kids who seemed to fare well in joint custody but who never felt they could really unpack their suitcase until they went to college or were living on their own.
  • I have observed many co-parenting situations that do well until one parent starts to date. Then everything falls apart.
  • Children in either situation need the Lord’s people, the church to reach out to them.
  • Children need to feel accepted, nurtured and know both parents love them.
  • Children in almost all divorcing situations need help processing the death of their once two-parent home.

The debate rages on in many states and around the world. While there is a big push for more balanced child custody laws in the court systems in our churches there needs to be a big push for helping the children process the divorce and heal from the stress divorce brings into their lives. Also needed is a loving concern for the single parent that attends your church or is in your community dealing with these issues.






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