As a physician in internal medicine, Newton’s Dr. Ned Holstein encountered families torn apart by byzantine child-custody arrangements. This led him to found the National Parents Organization, which aims to improve children’s lives through family court reform so that mothers and fathers share equal parenting responsibilities post-divorce.
“I became aware of many stories of people who had been divorced and dealt with the family courts. I didn’t believe the stories. I found it outlandish until I heard so many. And being Jewish, I couldn’t just go along with it. I had to meddle,” he says with a laugh.
Holstein will host the third International Conference on Shared Parenting over Memorial Day weekend at Boston’s Westin Copley Place, bringing together experts around the world to discuss how to protect children’s best interests after divorce.
Dr. Ned Holstein
“Millions of children have been assumed to do best in a sole-custody arrangement. But this tradition was established by attorneys and judges with no training in child development and without empirical research,” Holstein says. The tradition is long-established and more troublesome than ever, he says, since up to 50 percent of children are affected by family court decisions these days.
He says that family courts favor a sole-custodial arrangement, where one parent has primary custody and another might only see a child once every other weekend, and perhaps for a few hours on a weeknight. With shared parenting, a child spends between 35 and 50 percent of time with each parent.
“The courts continue to insist on elaborate or expensive processes of picking out one parent who may be 10 percent better to be a sole-custodial parent. What they should do is dispense with custody battles. If both parents are fit, there should be shared parenting,” he says, noting that children with shared parenting arrangements do better academically, enjoy better physical health and have less propensity toward anxiety and depression.
His work is also in line with his Conservative Judaism, he says.
“This is consistent with Jewish teaching and empirical research. We’re told in the Torah to honor one’s mother and father,” he says. But often, one parent is left out, to the child’s detriment.
“What ends up happening is one parent goes for long intervals of time without their child. And this is tough, because a kid’s timescale is different from an adult’s. If they don’t see you for 10 days, to them, that’s like a month, especially for a younger child. When the mean girls belittle your daughter, she needs help today, not in 10 days. You lose intimacy in the relationship,” he says.
Plus, seeing the more distant parent ends up opening old wounds and reinforcing distance instead of closeness.
So what’s his advice for keeping children’s emotional upheaval to a minimum during a difficult divorce?
“Don’t get into a custody battle at all,” he says. “From the outset, from the first day of a separation, make sure kids spend equal time with both parents. If this happens from the outset, they’ll have an easier time psychologically.”
Also refrain from badmouthing your ex, tempting though it may be. Instead, embrace the concept of “parallel parenting.”
“He does it his way; she does it her way. Children adapt to different sets of rules and expectations. After all, rules are different at school and at home,” he says, noting that research presented at this weekend’s conference will show that children can adapt to different household rules and environments.
There’s another benefit to this kind of polite parenting, Holstein says, and it’s not for the kids.
“With shared parenting, over the course of time, amicability returns much more frequently,” he says.
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Kara Baskin is a writer for JewishBoston.com. She is also a regular contributor to The Boston Globe and a contributing editor at Boston Magazine. She has worked for New York Magazine and The New Republic, and helped to launch the now-defunct Jewish Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.