Yesterday, I received my child’s registration packets for the next school year. Glancing at the registration forms, I sighed in frustration. After nine years of editing their forms, and giving them suggestions, it was immediately obvious that my efforts have still made very little difference.
You see, I am a divorced parent. My child’s forms are not my friends. People who design forms for children’s information pretend that all children’s residential and parenting situations are clean, simple, and easy to understand. Like our school district: on the registration form, they only give one line for me to fill in my child’s “home” address. On all of the documents, there is only one space for one parent to sign. Report cards, health cards, and progress reports are the same way. And of course, since my son technically “lives” with me, all of the information that is sent through the mail from our school only comes to me. Apparently, I am the only parent who now matters.
Mostly, however, I am appalled at the terminology our school district is using on their most current registration form. I have been demarcated as the “custodial parent with which the student lives” and my son’s father is, by default, the “non-custodial” parent. What? Not only is this insulting, it is also inaccurate. About ten years ago, Texas law underwent some revisions and stopped using the word “non-custodial.” About the same time, the state also began to expect that parents would share custody of their children after a divorce, renaming both parents “joint managing conservators.” Apparently our school district has not done its homework. Perhaps for them, it is a “non-issue.”
So, why I am making such a big deal out of a couple of words and some missing lines on a school registration form? Well, just as our society no longer terms our African-American citizens as “colored,” or our Asian-American citizens as “oriental,” I believe it is important for our society to stop demeaning divorced parents by inaccurate, outdated, insulting names like “non-custodial.” The words we use are important, influencing perceptions, determining attitudes, and shaping our behaviors. Our children internalize these words and treat their parents according to what they have been taught. If they believe that they still live with both of their parents after a divorce, they will have more respect for the authority and contributions of both of their parents. If they are told that one parent is “custodial” and the other is “non-custodial,” then the message there is that one parent matters more and the other matters less.
In a modern age in which roughly 50% of American marriages end in divorce, it is time for all forms to have room for two home addresses, room for both parents to sign their names, and an option to have two copies of information sent to both parents. It is also time for all divorced parents to stand up and stop the dissemination of false information to the general public, to insist that equal treatment is given to both parents, and to refuse to fall into the seductive trap of viewing one parent as “better” or “more important” than the other. Discriminatory treatment such as this simply has no place in American society. I believe that the principles of justice and freedom upon which our country were founded demand that when discrimination is discovered to exist, that it is incumbent upon all of us to eradicate it from existence. And on this issue, I know that we must do a better job, for divorced parents, and for their children, who continue to live with them BOTH.