By Jill H. Breslau
Language can impact our thinking and behavior. Language in statutes regarding custody, for example, can influence –if only in a subtle way—how we perceive our relationship to our children.
For example, in Maryland, where I practice now, and many other states, custody of your own children is described as a right. As a parent, you have a right to the companionship of your children, you have the right to teach and guide them, to nurture them, to direct, and control their behavior. You have the right to decide where your children go to school, whether and where they attend religious services, what kind of medical treatment they receive and from whom. In Maryland, custody may be shared or sole, and the other parent may be awarded access or visitation.
In Florida, where I used to practice, and in several other states, the “custody” and “rights” language has been deliberately replaced by different vocabulary with a different perspective. Parents in Florida are not awarded custody. Instead, parents have responsibility for their children, and parental responsibility, at divorce, can be shared by both parents or can be delegated to one parent alone. With shared parental responsibility, parents share time with their children and both parents are entitled to have full information about the children and to share in major decision-making for the children. Sole parental responsibility is awarded only when sharing would be detrimental to a child.
I believe the difference in language—rights versus responsibilities—impacts the way we approach custody in divorce. If we believe in our rights, then we have to fight for them, and we have to win them. Our children, on some level, are perceived as objects to be gained or lost. There is a sense of ownership, rather than relationship.
On the other hand, if we perceive that we are undertaking responsibilities to our children, we may be more cautious about considering what is really best for them. We may be more focused on how we can accomplish the tasks associated with child-rearing than on establishing our parenting superiority.