Primary parenting rights include the right to decide where a child lives, how the child is educated, and the type of medical care the child receives. As every divorcing parent knows, these are the “mega rights.” The right to decide where a child lives, in a real sense, defines who gets custody and whether joint custody arrangements are likely to succeed. In a successful marriage, whenever different points of view emerge or strong disagreements occur, parents lobby each other, use friendly persuasion and present their best case. Family law psychologists have worked hard to develop a system to help divorcing parents decide who should get the primary parenting rights.
The system I prefer involves helping parents develop their own “primary parenting profile.” This profile is developed in consultation with their psychologist or professional counselor and is based upon: 1) The history of a parent’s decisions and choices for their child; 2) The quality of the decisions made in the past and the choices selected; 3) The assessed competency of the parent to make important decisions for the child in the future; and 4) Each parent’s willingness to consider the other parent’s and the child’s points of view.
The primary parenting profile is developed independently of economic choices based upon influence and power. When there is acrimony between parents, family lawyers often craft divorce decrees that offer an “escape hatch” for bitter disagreements over primary parenting responsibilities (for example, the right to select a residence can be restricted to the geographical area). The decree of divorce may force a contested primary parent’s choice into mediation, arbitration, or counseling, or family lawyers may design a Collaborative Law mechanism for conflict resolution of primary parenting choices.
Fairness is an important element in all child custody decisions. However, the key to making the best choices for children is about results and not fairness. Assessing and comparing primary parenting profiles is a valuable psychological exercise for everyone involved, especially the child.
Dr. Robert Gordon is a forensic and clinical psychologist who practices in Dallas and Houston. He is the author of The Primary Parenting Scales.