Home is Where the Heart is

In recent years, you may have noticed, some of the language around divorced parents and children has changed. What used to be called "visitation," for instance, is now called "parenting time." It's an important distinction, and words matter. A parent is not a "visitor" in his or her child's life, but an essential part of it. By the same token, when a child spends time with a parent, it shouldn't feel like an appointment or outing. It should feel comfortable and...normal. That's why it's so important for each parent to be able to have parenting time in their own home. After all, as they say, home is where the heart is.

Another, more subtle shift in the language of divorce has been to move from referring to the child's primary residence (if there is one) as "home" and the place they stay with the other parent as "Mom's/Dad's house." Instead, many attorneys try to encourage their clients to say, "From Friday to Monday, you'll be at home with Mom, and from Monday afternoon until Friday morning, you'll be at home with Dad." The implication is that the child doesn't just have one home and somebody else's place to visit; he or she has a real home with both parents. It may seem fussy to make a point of saying things this way, but the way we talk about things takes root in our children's minds—and don't you want your children to feel the comfort of home when they are with a parent? They want that, too.

When Home is Off Limits

Unfortunately for some kids, their parents don't understand the importance of them feeling truly at home with both parents. They may honor parenting agreements to the extent of making sure the other parent has time with the child, but doesn't get to have "at home" time with them. Instead, parenting time takes place at some other location: perhaps a grandparent's home, or even a hotel.

We had a client who lives out of state, while the other parent lives in Minnesota. The Minnesota parent would not permit their child to stay in the home of the other parent out of state. This is not a situation in which the out-of-state parent has been shown to pose any danger to the child; the Minnesota parent simply did not want the child to be at home with the other parent.

As a result, the out-of-state parent was demoted to the role of a visitor in his child's life. We successfully argued in district court that getting to see and spend time with his child isn't enough, because they don't get to do the everyday, homely little activities that make up a life: movie marathons on the couch, homework help at the kitchen table, jumping in leaf piles in the yard after raking fall leaves together. The court agreed and now Dad and child are able to be at home together for extended periods of time during the year.

Sometimes, when one parent treats the other parent as a "visitor," it also results in a double standard with regard to expectations. For instance, we are aware of a family in which one parent regularly uses day care for the child, but feels that if the other parent were to do so they would be more or less neglecting their child. Of course, day care is something working parents do in the ordinary course of life with their children, but if you view the other parent as a "visitor" in the child's life, you might expect them to try to spend every minute with the child (as this parent clearly expected). That's unfair both to the other parent, and to your child.

What "Home" Means to a Child

We may look back on childhood as an idyllic time, but the reality is that children have stresses of their own, and today's children have challenges we never imagined, from increased pressure to succeed at school to cyberbullying. Then, too, it's important to remember that having parents who no longer live together is also a stressful situation.

Home, for adults and children alike, is supposed to be the safe place where we can relax, take a deep breath, lay outside pressures aside, and just be ourselves. Allowing your child to truly have a home with both you and the other parent grants them that safe space wherever they are. You remember how, when your children were toddlers, they would throw tantrums when they were overtired, or hungry, or even just scared or feeling out-of-control. Your children may be older now, but they still need the restorative peace of home to help them "hold it together." (If you think about it, you probably do, too.)

Obviously, if there are genuine safety concerns with the child being at home with the other parent, that is an issue to raise with your family law attorney. But if the issue is simply that you'd like the child to think of your house as (their only) home, or that the other parent has different house rules than you, consider letting it go. Your child needs the freedom to just relax with their other parent at home as well as with you.

If you have questions about what is best for your children with regard to parenting time, we invite you to contact our law office.

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