An Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Parents

Instead of custom-tailoring parenting time to the children, we buy parenting time off the rack without trying it on.

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Q: What’s an economist?

A: Someone who sees something work in the real world, and thinks, “Sure, but does it work in theory?”

Considered the father of modern economics, Adam Smith wrote of the “invisible hand” in his seminal work, Wealth of Nations (less commonly known by its full title: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations).  The hand was Smith’s way of explaining that economic self-interest can be the engine that expands wealth to buyer and seller, employer and employee, so long as the market is open, information is plentiful, and lawlessness does not rule the day.  The study of economics is, in a word, the study of scarcity – the allocation of limited resources to unlimited needs or wants.

Adam Smith (probably gave his kids the "invisible backhand" when they got out of line).

Like many attorneys who practice in small towns, I spend a considerable amount of my time working with clients in family law matters.  Aside from matters of child abuse, the most frustrating conflicts tend to involve parenting time – the allocation of time children spend between Mother and Father, particularly after a divorce or if the parents were never married.  These are fraught with difficulty.  No father wants to spend less time throwing the baseball around with his son.  No Mother who rejoiced in relaxing every Sunday afternoon with her daughter wants to reduce that special time to merely twice a month.

Like the study of economics, parenting time is often a harsh lesson in scarcity.  But unlike theoretical economic actors using money, widgets, guns or butter, parents (and sometimes courts) measure scarcity in time. Time with their children.  I believe, however, that using time as a measuring stick for the success of parent-child relationships is unwise.  Time is fixed.  The hours in a day are unchanging.  As a consequence, parents quickly become entrenched: Mother’s time with son necessarily decreases the time available for Father.  Father’s weekend with daughter takes one more Sunday afternoon away from Mother.  Under this destructive world view, one parent’s success will always come at the expense of the other parent.

This “zero sum game” is the perception Adam Smith demonstrated could be avoided.  Smith suggested that different nations had comparative economic advantages.  Some were rich in timber, others in minerals and still others in the size of their labor force.  By playing to its strengths, each “economic actor” – whether nation or individual – could use trade for its own betterment and the betterment of others.

The principle is true with parents, too. If Smith were a family law lawyer, I think he would have suggested that parents stop using a clock or a calendar to measure the success of their relationship with their children, and realize that a better relationship between the parents always improves their relationship with their children.  A rising tide lifts all boats, so to speak.

Indiana has published the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines that are designed to help parents and courts have a starting point for the discussion of parenting time.  They provide a rudimentary parenting time schedule and are designed to serve as an indication of the minimum amount of time for the noncustodial parent to spend with the children.  Too often, however, parents, lawyers, and judges use the IPTG as the definitive schedule to be applied in all cases.  Instead of custom-tailoring parenting time to the children, we buy parenting time off the rack without trying it on.

In my experience, the best parenting time arrangements between parents have the following attributes in common:

1.    The parents trust each other to make good decisions for the children. Trust is the spine that runs through the middle of successful parenting time arrangements.  The mechanics of even the most precise and logical schedule of parenting time cannot be an adequate substitute.

2.    The parents communicate regularly and openly. Too many parents adopt the “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing” approach to co-parenting.  They are quick to pridefully note “I never say anything bad about my kids’ father. [At least not to my kids].”  But is that enough?  Not saying anything good about their father will take its own toll on how the children view both parents.  A firefight isn’t the only way to declare an enemy.  Waging a cold war still drains the precious (read: scarce) resources.  Saying nothing probably is better than a raging argument, at least in the short run. But what low expectations we have of parents if we praise their cold war silence.

3.   The children know the basic schedule. Some flexibility is essential, such as allowing extra time for a vacation, and out-of-state relative, or a special event, like a concert or ball game.  But not at the expense of planning the time.  When we plan something, it shows that we think it’s important enough to get it right:  A camping trip, a Valentine’s Day dinner, or a sales presentation.  Children who see parents planning out parenting time know that their parents think it is important.  That will rub off on the kids.  They’ll think it’s important, too, which will come in handy when they enter that I’m-fifteen-and-know-everything-and-my-lame-parents-know-nothing stage.

4.    The parents are willing to sacrifice for their children. Sacrifice is a word that conjures different images for different people: from sending a daughter to college in lieu of a mid-life crisis convertible, to Christ on the cross.  I’ve never had a client who wouldn’t have told me, “Of course I’ll sacrifice for my kids.”  But it’s human nature to want a sacrificial decision to be our own decision, not one that is made for us.  Writing a check to the Salvation Army feels sacrificial, writing a check to the I.R.S. feels like a root canal.  But sacrifice in parenting is more subtle.  Can Father sacrifice by committing not to feel slighted if Mother is habitually twenty minutes late in meeting him for the start of his weekend visit?  Can Mother resist the temptation to offer up sarcastic commentary about Father’s late support payment over dinner?  I am convinced that these small but difficult sacrifices have profound impact on children.

5.   The parents are determined that resolving parenting time disagreements in court is not an option. Let me tell you a secret: courts don’t solve disputes.  At best, they merely end them.  A mercenary approach to family law suggests that an agreement should only be reached if the costs of going to court (money, stress, risk of adverse decisions) outweigh the rewards (getting the decision you want, showing your ex you’re not a doormat, standing up for your rights).  But litigants in any court dispute tend to see the strengths of their case more clearly than its weaknesses. Also, children experience all of the costs of a family court dispute and rarely see the benefits, save perhaps the benefit that the conflict may have reached a truce, at least for a time.  Two parents committed to not going back to court will become more creative in their problem-solving, and will understand their children’s struggles and joys more thoroughly and intimately.

Childhood is too short to be spent in the midst of parental conflict.  In that respect, time is a scarce resource.  But a child’s ability to love and trust are limitless.  Parents, measure your wealth accordingly.

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For any parent looking to improve parenting time, I recommend www.UpToParents.org, and its sister websites.  Mr. Charlie Asher has put together comprehensive tools that help parents move from the cliché of “putting kids first” to finding practical ways to make it happen.