In my time I have contributed to more than twenty legal text books but it is with particular trepidation that I write this. I have been asked to make four points about parenting in no more than1,500 words. As the father of a large number of children I know how much better many others are at the task of parenting than me.
There are so many ways to resolve your family difficulties other than having a court impose a solution on everyone.
The fact thatI have been a family lawyer for over 38 years and am now a Designated Family Judge does not make me a better parent. I suppose that it does mean, however, that I am a more frequent witness than most to some of the pitfalls and tribulations that parenting can bring. So, that is the basis upon which I write this.
Parenting is tough
The first thing I want to say is this. Parenting is tough. Really tough. Those who think that it is all chocolate boxes and roses are kidding themselves. Remember those sleepless nights with a crying baby and work ticking towards you on the bedroom clock? Remember the challenges that the teenage years can bring? Now imagine that you are in your late teens or early twenties, have had a difficult childhood yourself and are trying to parent alone with limited finances and little support. All too often that is the situation that I witness in court and ask myself: ‘if this were you, Stephen, how would you cope?’.I know the answer to that all too well. There are no shaded corners in family life, we live in an electronic age of very high material expectation where it is increasingly difficult to set firm but loving boundaries and those who are closest to us know us best. At work we can put on an image, at home we can’t. But not only is parenting tough, it is also the most important job that we do. All life is temporary, at the end of the day and when our lives end, we will be remembered most for how we have treated other people – especially our children, because they are the next generation. So, parenting and our treatment of other people, especially those who are closest to us, matter more than anything else. They will be the people who carve our headstones and fit us into our coffins, all of which are the same size whatever we may have done in our public lives. As to my job- when I retire I am sure that someone will replace me and do it better than I have. So, first point – parenting is tough but it really matters.
Help with parenting
My second point. We all need help with parenting if we are to get it right and, if it goes wrong, we need help putting it right. Help may come from extended families, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and the rest. But help may also need to come from outside agencies because sometimes the problems are simply too entrenched or complex for things to be kept in the family. There are some truly excellent initiatives that are geared to the provision of support and guidance forparents- the group for whom I am writing this is a very good example. We all need to be able to swallow our pride more and turn to them when difficulties arise, rather than wait for the emotional car crash to happen before trying to resolve things. Parenting works best when it is not an isolated affair, no one owns their children and everyone needs help at times with the things that matter on life’s rocky journey.
My third point. Both parents and both extended families matter. I have spent years developing a single sentence that I try to cram into judgments: ‘Nature, law and common sense require that it be recognised that the best place for a child to live is with a natural parent unless proven and proportionate necessity otherwise demands.’ Just as I believe that to be true, so I believe it to be true that nature, law and common sense require that it be recognised that it is in the best interests of a child to have a relationship with both parents and with both extended families unless the same adverse criteria are genuinely and demonstrably made out in a way that cannot be put right. When I started at the bar 38 years ago it would often be said in messy divorce cases ‘well, the children are better off without him.’ Now that seems absurd in a truly toe-curling way. We know better now…I hope. However, I wonder what will make people’s toes curl in 38 years time when they recollect our current views about parenting. As I write this, I can hear a cascade of replies in my head in answer to that point.
Resolving issues without court
Finally, although we each think, no doubt, that we have stunning insights to bring to how parents should function, especially when commenting on other people’s children, there is no monopoly on common sense or perception – there was a song about that to which I used to listen in the punk rock era when I was at university with a curtain ring painfully clasped to my ear because my father had told me I would never be a barrister if I had an ear pierced. So, if you do bring your case to court please don’t think that the judge will be able to identify an absolute answer to the problem. Judges are highly trained and will do their best to find a solution that puts the welfare of your child first. However, a judge is not a parent to your child, does not have absolute perception or immaculate insight, must decide the facts of a case on evidence and does not have the same connection with your child as you do.The judge does not have parental responsibility for your child and, in many situations, two different judges may reach different decisions on the same set of facts because that is how human affairs work. My fourth point, therefore, is this. Only come to court if you really have to. There are so many ways to resolve your family difficulties other than having a court impose a solution one everyone. Mediation (which is still under- used in this country), arbitration (the importance of which has recently been given strong and further recognition by Sir James Munby), counselling, family therapy, buddying, parenting classes (such as those run by the excellent National Parenting Initiative) and many other initiatives are available and are better ways of resolving family issues than doffing the jousting gear of litigation. You only know the true cost of the battle after it has been fought. Surely it is far better to say, unlike the two characters in the well-known children’s book, ‘lets agree not to have a battle’.
The ‘Pearly Gates test’
A fellow judge and I developed what we called the ‘Pearly Gates test’ in life. Two seconds after you are doing whatever it is that you are doing, you find yourself at the Pearly Gates – and no, I do not believe that there is a such a thing or place, but please bear with me. There, the saint looks over half moon glasses and asks: ‘What have you got to say for yourself?’ Suddenly the things that appeared to matter, don’t. ‘Well’, you say, ‘I wrote a cracking judgment in a case last year.’ ‘Yes, but you’ve just been overturned by the Court of Appeal’, the reply whizzes back. Trying not to curse, because that is hardly the done thing in such a sanctified place, you try to dredge up something worth saying. Perhaps the best that any of us might hope to say is: ‘I did my best for the generations that follow me and for those who turned to me for help.’
I never did learn to précis. So my really final point is this. Enjoy it. Kids are fun. Challenging, but fun.I thought about that as I dived from a high sea wall in Portugal into clear, deep water with my three youngest children bombing into the sea around me last week. Parenting really is two way emotional traffic and I certainly have got back far more than I have ever given. I have no doubt at all about that one.
Posted on March 21, 2019