Through A Child’s Eyes?

I know I have been inattentive and remiss as far as the blog is concerned.  My apologizes.  I have many things to comment on–all in open windows on my computer, which makes me nervous.    This may mean you are in for a string of brief and perhaps not adequately well thought out posts.    Think of them as conversation starters, perhaps.  

Anyway, before I even turn to that, I wanted to toss something else out there.  This is generated by some conversation we’ve had in a class I am teaching this semester.    We’ve been talking about the constitutional protections for the parent/child relationship, and it is all pretty much from the point of view of the parent.   Thus, the courts consider whether adult X has a protected relationship with child Y.    But every now and then someone asserts that child Y has  a protected relationship with adult X.   There isn’t a very good framework for thinking about  that.   

It may seem like this is unimportant, because the child’s relationship with the adult is just the mirror-image of the adult’s relationship with the child.    I’m not convinced that’s true, though.  

Consider, for example, the treatment of unmarried fathers.  Unmarried fathers are frequently at a legal disadvantage when compared with married fathers.   They are less likely to find their relationships with their children afforded legal protection then are married fathers.  

This is in part justified by the fact that the man has some agency with regard to his marital status.   The idea is that if he wanted to be married to the mother, he could be.   (Of course, this isn’t always true.  The mother would have to agree.  But let’s just put that aside.)   Overall, I think for many people the idea of attaching some significance to his unmarried state seems reasonable. 

But can the same be said if you look at it from the point of view of a young child?   The only thing the child knows is the nature and quality of her/his relationship with her/his father.     While this relationship may be shaped in part by the relationship between the father and the child’s mother, it is hard to see that marriage/non-marriage necessarily has anything to do with it.   There are unmarried father’s who are, from a young child’s point of view, indistinguishable from a married father.   From this perspective, grounding differential treatment on something that has nothing to do with the substance of the relationship (and that is entirely out of the child’s control) seems unfair and irrational.  

To be fair, it is hard to think of children as independent legal actors.  After all, would you let a three-year-old make significant decisions?  A seven-year-old?  A ten-year-old?   Even (or especially?) a thirteen-year-old?   We don’t think of kids these ages as really being capable of careful decision making and so we usually use some substituted decision-maker, the default being a parent.   Parents decide what is best for their children because we like to think they are the best available decisions makers.   

It even seems to me that the discussion about donor conceived children has, to some degree,   focused on adult perspectives.   Adults who are donor conceived are more capable of advocacy and of articulating their experience then children are.    Of course I understand that the adults were once children.   But the remembered experience of being a child is not quite the same as the immediate experience of being a child.   (I say this not in judgment of anyone else but thinking of how limited my own abliity to reconstruct my own childhood is.) 

I think it is worth taking some time to try and figure out how to take better account of the child’s perspective.    Perhaps this means turning to other professions, but the that won’t lead to easy answers.   So much of what people say about children is open to debate.    Yet at the same time, there do seem to me to be some simple truths.   Children form bonds with adults who care for them, at least if the adults are loving and kind.   Their experience is local and immediate.   (It’s terrible trying to stay in touch with young children by phone.)   And it is rooted in their lived reality.   Perhaps we should attend to the reality that children know along with all the other things we take into account.

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6 responses to “Through A Child’s Eyes?

  1. I have many friends – great friends- that even I would classify as “dead-beat-dads” – to their faces no less, they know who they are. And when they are not in custody of their children and are physically and mentally incapable of supporting them properly I give them this advice: call every single night of their lives to say “how was your day” and “good night”. It does not matter if half the time Mom hangs up on them. I say be cordial and pleasant and consistent – that child will know when they are thirty years old that if nothing else they were on the mind of their father. Telephone contact may not be the greatest but consistently every day at a certain time if Daddy calls it will become part of their reality part of their daily reality. Its not good enough by a long shot, nothing can compare to daily care – but its not apathy and sometimes when people are in their lowest darkest places its all they can muster and damn it they better well do it.

  2. Can you give some examples of how the law treats unmarried fathers differently?

  3. I found out here on this blog that a child’s father has absolutely no rights if the mother and her husband want to pretend that her husband is the father. That is the most horrible wretched shameful thing a mother could do – to prevent the father of her child from being with his child just because she’d prefer someone else to make-believe and play house with her and another man’s child. Sick.

    • Just to be clear, I am not sure if this is true in all states. And I wonder if we could agree that it is not always a terrible thing. Suppose the husband willingingly and knowingly undertakes the role of social father, while the man genetically linked to the child won’t take up the responsibility. Could we agree that if several years pass it would be better to recognize the man the child knows as her/his father as the legal father? What is to be gained (from the child’s point of view) by recognizing the other man? Let’s just assume everyone is honest about the situation, to take that particular problem out of the mix.

  4. I think that if the real father ever ever ever comes out of his fog of laziness and wants visitation and wants to have access to his child they absolutely must allow that and not prevent it – its never too late to change. If the childs father knew about and gave up his rights willingly then yes of course. I just don’t think its fair for a fellow to find out that his ex-girlfriend had his child but 5 years past and she got married and put another guys name on the certificate – the guy had no chance she prevented him from doing the right thing.

  5. yes if honesty is played out all the way around and everyone involved knows what is going on – and the husband wants to take on that responsibility – yes of course

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