by Robert A. Simon, Ph.D.
Concepts of what is best for children may seem obvious. But as I learned during the recent 6th World Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rights in Sydney, Australia, there is a surprising amount of variation.
This conference, held every four years, is attended by mental health professionals, judges, attorneys and educators from around the world who share a common interest – the well being of children who face the breakup of their families or who are the victims of abuse, neglect or other forms of maltreatment. All of us at the World Congress are committed to protecting children and providing them with the opportunity to have a brighter future.
Concepts of what is best for children vary from culture to culture. When parents divorce in Japan, it is common for mothers to be given full custodial rights with fathers having access to their children just a few hours a month, often under supervision for no other reason than they are fathers and are thought to lack the skills and abilities to adequately nurture their children.
On the other hand, in many parts of India, when parents divorce, fathers have the presumptive right to custody of children with mothers being afforded whatever parenting rights the father chooses. To those of us in the West, not only does this stand in contrast to what our cultural beliefs hold, it stands in contradiction to what we know from empirical research about the best interests of children when their parents divorce. This helps to demonstrate how powerful and deeply embedded traditions, cultural practices and social beliefs are intricately woven into how the best interests of children are interpreted.
Despite the differences, what seems universal are concerns about the national laws and legal procedures families must rely on when they cannot solve their own problems, whether these are problems associated with divorce or child protection matters. It is encouraging that cultures everywhere are working to better the lives of children.
What was also universal is that no system of laws is sufficient. When people can’t solve their own problems, any solution imposed on them is imperfect.
Every family involved in litigation that I’ve worked with as a forensic psychologist is unable to heal until the litigation ends and their personal “rules of engagement” for the family have been defined moving forward. Many families’ wounds become deeper until their cases are resolved.
No matter the culture, it is far better for everyone to take control of their family’s own future and work together outside the court system to solve their issues, guided and supported by professional. This is what makes the Collaborative Family Law model so successful. It may not work for everyone, but it is worth considering and discussing, particularly because the well-being of every member of the family is kept upper most in mind at all times.
The World Congress reinforced for me how important it is to respect one another and remember that the things we do and the work we do has lasting impact – at all levels. The variety of human culture and the interrelationships of cultures strengthens the human fabric and therefore, enriches each of us.