Public Education and language change are long overdue. Society has changed in multiple ways over the last 50-70 years:
- Family – this has moved from the traditional heterosexual married couple to a wide range of blended and diverse family systems.
- Relationship Breakdown – this used to be categorised as the ‘fault’ of one person. There’s now a greater understanding of the complexity of relationship breakdown and a move away from any language of fault.
- Safety – rather than domestic violence affecting a few families, we now know of the widespread prevalence of domestic abuse in all its forms.
- Children – we have shifted from ‘children shall be seen and not heard’ to their need to be heard and the ‘voice of the child’
- Science – we now know that entrenched parental conflict harms childhood brain development and negatively impacts a child’s life well into their adult years; this was either not known or ignored for much of the last century.
- Law – has developed to reflect our societal changes; we have legislation for civil partnerships, same sex marriage and no-fault divorce. We have made our response to domestic abuse and coercive control more robust by implementing the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and, importantly, we have the Children Act and the welfare principle.
- International obligations – we have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, Article 12, which recognises children’s rights to express their views and have those views taken seriously, including when parents separate.
It feels a huge ask to shift societal attitudes, but we must leave behind our historical and outdated misconceptions about family breakdown if the lives of future generations of children are to be improved.
This is a safety issue for the 280,000 or so children whose parents separate each year. A wealth of research establishes that continuing and unresolved parental conflict can cause children to suffer life-long harm
As with racism, sexism and other harmful attitudes, any language which promotes ‘fight’ language for separating parents is detrimental to children and should not be used.
A new vocabulary is needed which acknowledges a family in crisis, where safety is a priority, and where healthy childhoods are promoted so children can thrive.
As well as using appropriate language, some clear public messages need to be understood:
- Safety always comes first; no child or parent should live in fear or at risk, and the family court is there to protect them;
- The term ‘custody’ no longer exists. We do not own our children; they do not live in our custody. Instead, our law refers simply to child arrangements.
- Parents are given parental responsibility rather than rights.
- ‘Fighting over competing rights’ needs to become ‘Cooperating over shared responsibilities’.
- Both parents are responsible for promoting the child’s relationship with the other parent, where safe to do so; one parent does not have a right to stop it.
- A child’s time with a parent is important, but so is the way parents relate to each other. Children need parents who don’t live out their hatred for each other at the expense of their children.
Society expects parents to cooperate with each other and promote the child’s relationship with the other parent, wherever it is safe to do so.
Promoting a change in language and perceptions
The new Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act is an ideal platform to promote a positive language and a reframed attitude to family separation.
Click ‘here’ to an article about language published in Family Law:
See also the Family Law Language Project