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Parenting Responsibility Does Not End at Divorce
SEMINAR, JANUARY 14, 2005
Hon. F. Herbert Gruendel
Judge Gruendel recently was sworn in as a judge of the Appellate Court. He made this speech in January.

When I saw that my assignment was to discuss why parentís responsibilities toward their children donít end with divorce, I thought it would be pretty easy to prepare my remarks. I talk to people about these responsibilities every day. I learned from my friend and teacher, Judge Dranginis, that courts can dissolve marriages but cannot dissolve families. I learned from her and my own work that judges involved in family matters have a solemn duty not to be silent, but to tell people the truth.
 

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I discovered, however, that preparing these remarks was not so easy. I have a vision of what I think childhood can be, and a vision of what I think parenting must be. But as I thought of sharing that vision, I was troubled, for I know that not all of our children enjoy the benefits of my hopes for them and not all parents meet their responsibility to provide those benefits.

In large and growing parts of our society, children have guns, children have drugs, and children have babies. In large parts of our society, children are lonely, children are ill, and children are insufficiently educated, even insufficiently fed. We have not made a world that is always hospitable to children.

And as I thought of these wrongs, I began to fear that my visions of childhood and of parenting were just outmoded, sentimental, and idealistic, unworkable in todayís harsh world.

I expressed my concern to my wife, whose opinions in all things I cherish. Almost without pausing she said, "No. What you believe about children and parents is not idealism. It is a moral imperative."

Make no mistake. I am not putting myself on a pedestal or trying to make you believe that I have the moral authority to deliver unto others truth from on high. I am an ordinary person with ordinary weaknesses and ordinary flaws. My beliefs are morally imperative to me, but need not be to anyone else. But these beliefs I will share with you are not extraordinary. They are simple, and they work. I know they work.

Children are Godís gift to their parents, to their families, and to their world, and they are a great gift. But with the gift comes responsibility, the obligation and the duty to protect, to nurture, and to teach. That responsibility is not a burden to be borne. Rather, it is part of the gift. It is a privilege and a pleasure. How we meet it is a measure of what our children can become and a measure of what we are.

A parentís responsibility for his or her children does not end with divorce. It does not end with illness, or poverty, or disappointment. It does not end with promotion or achievement or success. It does not end at all. It grows, and with every year and every travail it grows even larger. This is so because a parent is not simply the creator of a life, but also an architect of a person, a person who will be under construction for decades.

In every family, even in ordinary times, a parentís responsibility is daunting.

When children are babies, it includes the responsibility to feed, to bathe, to change, to soothe, to comfort, and to reassure. It includes the responsibility to know where the blanket is, what toys are best loved, and how to ensure safety. It includes the responsibility to open the world of language and thought, to share and encourage joy, and to instill confidence.

When children are in school, it includes all of those and more. It includes the responsibility to nurture companionship and community, to teach and demonstrate morality, to foster responsibility and restraint. It includes the responsibility to show children respect and the responsibility to both earn and expect it from them. It includes the responsibility to help them find new talents and skills, to help them heal small wounds, to comfort them through measles and mumps and the bumps of childhood friendships, and to know security of place and person.

When children are in adolescence, a parentís responsibility grows yet more. It includes the responsibility to impose discipline, to teach self-discipline, and yet to make their dreams as big as their hearts. It includes the responsibility to know where they are and who they are with, to know and control what they put into their bodies, to know what they hope for and to know what they fear. It includes the responsibility to help them separate the piles of dirty clothes on their floor from the piles of clean ones and the responsibility to teach them to drive safely. It includes the responsibility to make them earn what they get and share what they have, to know their world and to know their family. It includes again the responsibility both to earn and to expect their respect, and to return that respect to them. It includes the responsibility to build bridges for them back when they transgress and bridges for them forward when they succeed. And at the end of the day it includes the responsibility to let them go, to let them go but to leave a light on for them.

These responsibilities and more are part of every parentís task, even in the best of times. But when things get bad, the responsibilities grow. Where there is illness, there is the responsibility of caring and of healing and of giving hope. Where there death, there is the responsibility of permitting grief and of encouraging resilience.

More normal than illness and death for our children, though, is the trauma that comes with the separation of a family. When that happens, there are special responsibilities for parents, and they are not separate from these others I have discussed but in addition to them.

So let me give you some principles that can guide parents in meeting their responsibilities to their children during divorce.

They have a responsibility to know that children are not possessions, and to act accordingly. Our statute talks about custody, and custody implies ownership. You do not own your children. They own you. They cannot be divided, like bank accounts and stock portfolios. Parents must fight less about where their children will spend their time and more for what they will become.

They have a responsibility to know that children are not weapons, and to act accordingly. This means that they must ensure that children are shielded from litigation. The separation of a family is always a trauma to children. They need security, predictability, and safety. They want to know that their world will continue in some reasonable fashion. They cannot have those things if they are made into weapons to be aimed at the other parent, if they are told things about litigation or finances that will frighten them, or if they are forced to become protectors to one parent or another.

They have a responsibility to know that children have rights, and to act accordingly. Children have a right to have a lawyer, including the right to have a confidential and privileged relationship with that lawyer. Children have a right to medical and mental health treatment as is necessary, including the right of confidentiality and the right to have no one interfere with their treatment. Children have a right to as much economic security as their parents, through diligent work, can provide. Children have a right to an education. And parents must fight for those rights.

Parents have a responsibility to appreciate that children have two parents and need two parents, the responsibility to protect their relationships with both whenever that is safe. When people choose to have a child, they make two choices, both irrevocable. One is that the child will be born, and the second is who that childís mother and father will be. No one would doubt the intensity of anger, hurt, disappointment and fear that comes into a parentís life when a marriage breaks up, but all that must give way whenever possible to the right of children to have meaningful relationships with both their parents. Both parents must meet that responsibility, and they can best do it in two ways, by treating the other parent with respect and dignity, and by living in a way that earns dignity and respect for themselves.

Parents in dissolving families have responsibility to provide leadership for their children, to teach them resourcefulness and resilience, to teach them responsibility, and often to teach them the healing power of forgiveness. For we know that a parent forfeits something in his own life and injures something in her childís when the parentís own desires become more important to him or her than the childís needs.

The law makes little mention of children, but the law has a heart, and its heart is big enough, with your help, to protect all of our children and all of our hope. That is a moral imperative.
 

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