How Child Discipline Affects Custody Disputes
March 8, 2010
By Jennifer Moore, Family Law Attorney
Parents do not always agree on the issue of child discipline. This is a major problem in custody cases.
Discipline May Affect a Child’s Preferences
Where one parent is permissive and the other parent is somewhat more strict, the permissive parent has an edge in a custody battle. Even though courts attempt to honor relationships with both parents, the more permissive parent will be favored by the children. This will be reflected in any custody evaluation, both in the children’s preferences, as well as in the evaluator’s observations regarding the children’s bond with each parent. As Arizona Judge Anne Kass states in her article, Divorce Pair Should Agree On Discipline, “the common way these quarrels over discipline methods will usually play out is that the children gravitate to the parent who is more lenient because children vote with their feet.”
Tools to Measure Discipline
It can be hard to win a custody battle if your argument is that the children need more discipline, even if it’s true. Psychologists have attempted to design tools, such as the “Discipline Index,” that measure the the level of discipline that each parent may use, without asking the child to take sides in the divorce. However, it is my experience that custody evaluators seldom use these tools.
Discipline May Lead to Allegations of Abuse
A greater problem is that conflicts over punishment styles can lead to allegations of abuse. I was chatting with a group of friends, ranging from age 25-50 the other day, and almost every one of them had stories of experiencing physical discipline as a child. Some of the stories would have raised significant issues in a custody dispute. Some may have given rise to a child protection investigation or criminal charge. In Minnesota, you can be charged with a crime if you engage in malicious punishment of a child. Minn. Stat. Sec. 609.377 provides that “A parent, legal guardian, or caretaker who, by an intentional act or a series of intentional acts with respect to a child, evidences unreasonable force or cruel discipline that is excessive under the circumstances is guilty of malicious punishment of a child.”
Malicious punishment is a subjective determination. For example, A few years ago, there was rigorous debate over the propriety of “hot-saucing”, where the parent puts hot sauce on a child’s tongue as discipline. The practice has led to day care sanctions and even criminal charges, and has been the subject of custody litigation.
Attitudes and Beliefs About Discipline Vary by Community and Era
Salon.com has published an article about bibilical chastisement that shows the divergent nature of societal attitudes about corporal punishment. It is an almost certainty that Minnesota Courts would not regard “biblical chastisement” as an appropriate method of discipline, and such discipline would severely hinder a custody case.
What Discipline Style is Right for You?
We recommend that parents attempt to agree on a parenting style, and apply it consistently throughout their children’s lives. When cases come to us with discipline conflicts, we advise that the more strict parent modify their parenting style towards lenience, without giving up important parent child boundaries or risking the safety of their children. We also advise parents to avoid physical discipline in all cases. Sometimes, physical contact is necessary to protect yourself or your child. However, such contact should be loving, and intended to protect with every effort made to avoid any harm.
Where the parenting styles have been different for a long period of time, we advise that families engage in therapy and education together so that parents can parent more effectively with fewer misunderstandings and no false allegations of child abuse. Classes are available through the University of Minnesota Extension Service, and The Storefront Group.