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Children as property and fathers as part time babysitters:
Restoring the birthright of children from divorced homes

Ilan L Cohen
Clinical Psychologist
B.A. (Hons.Psych) M.Psych (Clinical), M.A.Ps.S
Full Member, College of Clinical Psychology

The current system of child maintenance requires the Child Support Agency to determine the amount of child maintenance to be based on the number of nights a parent has the child sleep over. This is a flawed approach for the following reasons

  • parents end up arguing over the number of nights they want the child to sleep over
  • the child is separated between the parents in an inequitable manner that is tantamount to division of property
  • despite the family laws' assertion that the child has an equal right to both parents, the outcome is most often biased towards the mother with the child spending less time together with their father.

Fathers as babysitters

Mothers are often prepared to "give" fathers the child on alternate weekends, which is the most common arrangement in place for fathers, as this gives the mother time out. Mothers perceive the separated/divorced fathers' role as "help" rather than providing nurturance as a parent. Fathers are subsequently viewed as babysitters to help out the mother. Fathers are not valued in a meaningful way because the current system is based on number of nights. This is in fact placing children from divorced homes at risk of psychological damage.

The effects of divorce

Divorce is upsetting to everyone in the family. Parents struggle with anger, shame, grief, and depression. The non custodial parent, often the father, often feels cut off from the family, feels depressed and alone. In the short-term, children in divorce struggle with feelings of abandonment, anger, fear, and longing. Divorce remains upsetting to children and parents for years. Many of the parents and children studied by Judith Wallerstein, for example, were still upset 10 years after the divorce. ( Wallerstein JS, Blakeslee S. Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce. New York: Ticknor)

Children cut off from the father

There is a negative impact of children being cut off and receiving minimal or no parenting time with their father. Childhood and adolescent depression and anxiety are significant problems that require attention. If this is not addressed, depression/anxiety in earlier years places this person at risk of emotional problems as an adult.

  1. Family Identity Confusion - children cut off from their father may feel "different" to other children at school, they may feel stigmatised and/or "less" whole than their peers. This may trigger lower self esteem and even depression, school performance and behaviour problems.

  2. Poorer Problem Solving - children benefit from the values and teachings of both a mother and father. Both fathers and mothers bring nurturance and compassion to their children however this may be expressed to the child in differing ways depending on the parent.

    For instance a mother may sit and talk to the child about their feelings while a father may take their daughter on an outing as a way to deal with a problem. In other cases a father may discuss a problem with their child and give advice while the mother may listen to the child or arrange a friend to come and play. Each approach has its own value and one approach is not better than the other.

    Without a father (or mother) the child misses out on receiving ways to deal with problems, often leading to increased anxiety and/or feelings of despair.

  3. Lower Self Efficacy - Self Efficacy is the belief one can achieve do something, a sense of emotional confidence in oneself. Fathers and mothers play a significant role in families by transferring a sense of confidence to the children. Children without fathers face the risk of a lowered sense of self efficacy because only one parent is present. Of course one parent is better than no parent but why should a child be deprived of the encouragement from two parents. Two is better than one. The risk increases if a mother has low self esteem and/or depression and there is no father to provide this emotional confidence.

  4. Psychological/Behaviour Problems - Research by Wallerstein indicates there is an increased risk of psychological problems post separation/divorce. A child needs a mother and a father to feel connected to the world. If a father (or mother) is not present the child can feel a sense of abandonment that can lead to depression and anxiety, guilt and frustration with the self. These feelings if not resolved place the child at risk of behaviour and psychological problems.

  5. Trust - Where a father or mother denigrates the other parent and purposefully attempts to cut off a parent, there are severe consequences for the child. These include
    • the child can lose trust in people in general
    • the child may feel they are to blame and this may trigger guilt and depression
    • the child may feel less worthy and develop depression

The Road Ahead

Unless childrens' time with their parents is equal, complex and unworkable systems such as the current child maintenance scheme will continue.

The road ahead requires a complete revolution in thinking. No longer should childrens' time be divided between parents in a way that is biased toward one parent.

No longer should child maintenance be based on an antiquated system on the number of nights for sleep over.

No longer can government put their head in the sand placing the quality of childs' psychological health at risk.

Now is the time to give children their birthright, the right to both parents equally. The psychological health of these children is dependent on the government stepping in and providing the legal infrastructure to secure these childrens' birthright.


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