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How Language Shapes our Thinking: Towards a “Parenting Plan”

As humans, we are symbol-making creatures. Our uniqueness (perhaps along with other primates) is in our symbolic use of language. Indeed, words as symbols have been major triggers of war, as well as peace, forever in our history. In our social and cultural history, words that characterize a concept that once had one set of connotations have tended to morph into words with other connotations, mostly in the direction of “political correctness” (ironically, with that term itself an interesting example). Sometimes such changes in meaning are for the better and help people develop a more constructive perspective of something (e.g. when “disabilities” changed to “differences”). And, sometimes such changes are for the worse (e.g. when “bombs” changed into “peace-keepers”) as they simply reveal an absurdity that insults one’s intelligence and generates disrespect for the wordsmiths.

Sometimes, these terms initially may have benign or even beneficial connotations, then come to have controversial or negative connotations (e.g. consider the shifts in racial connotations from the term “Negro” to “Black” to “African American,” or the shifts from “boyfriend” to “significant other” to “domestic partner,” or even the shifts from “stewardess” to “flight attendant,” or from “waiter” to “server” (as in the annoying,
“Hi, I’m Bob. I’ll be your server”).

In this regard, the domain of family conflict is no different. Many words in the divorce field have suffered this same fate. The term “custody,” for example, once had a positive connotation, of protecting children by securing their relationship with their (then presumed) primary attachment bond when their parents split up. Over time, as research began to show that children are fully capable of multiple attachments, this term came to acquire an adversarial connotation…i.e. it became a “fighting” term that was associated with power, control, and ownership of the child by one of the parents.

Then, the term “joint custody” was coined, in an attempt to reflect the researched understandings of children’s capacities for multiple attachments, and to avoid the power struggle between the parents by mutualizing their control over the child. For a decade or so, the term “joint custody” seemed to do the trick, by shifting the thinking of many divorcing parent from fighting to sharing. Ironically, over just a short period of years, “joint custody” then became just another adversarial, fighting term, as fathers increasingly wanted it, and mothers increasingly did not.

Of similar history, the term “visitation” initially had a positive connotation, of protecting children by securing their relationship with the non-custodial parent after the parents split up (In Canada, the term “access” is used, which, perhaps, is a slightly more neutral term than “visitation”). As “joint custody’ became increasingly popular as a concept, the term “visitation” began to acquire connotations that left non-custodial parents feeling tangential, limited, peripheral, and involved in an awkward and even unnatural relationship with their children. Parallels were drawn between “visiting” your children and “visiting” people in jails and hospitals.

In attempts to minimize the negative connotations of the term “visitation,” visiting parents increasingly went back to court to request joint custody — if not physical, at least legal. With such a designation, these parents felt at least equally empowered in their legally designated role, even if not in their actual scheduled time with their children. However, this nominal designation of their role in their child’s life increasingly proved unsatisfactory.

In a next effort to mutualize the significance of parenting by both mother and father (although not necessarily in a logical or sequential timeline), the term “Parenting Plan” came into vogue. This designation, in effect, subverted entirely the usage of terms like “custody,” “visitation,” and “access,” by replacing them with a detailed schedule of time-sharing and a listing of responsibilities of each parent following separation and divorce. This comprehensive document was simply called their “Parenting Plan.” In effect, this action attempted to delete all the “fighting” words (including “joint custody”) that fueled their fighting actions.

While certain time-honored concepts (such as “custody” and “visitation”) are hard to shake by both the public and the law, the designation of “Parenting Plan” seems, so far, to be accomplishing its intended goals — to reduce inter-parental conflict by eliminating the fighting words, and to help parents reframe in more constructive terms their disagreements over their children. This shift in perspective is from “fighting for custody” (seen as seeking the judge’s Academy Award for “best parent” in a past role of marital partner!) to developing an effective “Parenting Plan” for the future of their children. To date, the statutes of many states in the U.S. and the country of England have eliminated these fighting terms in favor of more conciliatory language (California, unfortunately for complex political reasons, has been a staunch hold-out on these changes legislatively, but many enlightened practitioners use the new language, nonetheless).

Indeed, in mediation, such emotionally loaded terms as “custody” “visitation” “access” and “joint custody” are minimized or avoided in favor of language that leads to the development of a more emotionally neutral “Parenting Plan.” Even if the actual time-sharing schedule is not much different from a more traditional post-divorce arrangement, the stingers represented by these “fighting words” have been removed.

In spite of these changes, there certainly are many couples who still will fight through their divorces, and, wars around the world will still occur. However, this simple change in the language within family law has optimized the good will and cooperation of many separated and divorcing parents, thus assuring more protection of their children from inter-parental discord. And, thus, another major benefit of mediation over litigation is realized…the shift from war to peace.


Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D

Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D., is a clinical-child psychologist, a child custody and family mediator and a national and international trainer and consultant in child psychology and mediation since 1977. He is the author of the classic text, Mediating Child Custody Disputes: A Strategic Approach, and co-author of Splitting America: How… MORE >

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