This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the Crosby, Stills Nash & Young hit song "Teach Your Children." It's also the 40th anniversary of the inception of the no-fault divorce craze. Since then, the parents of approximately one million children a year have gotten divorced. 40 years, 40 million kids.
Here's a look back at some of the lessons we've taught them along the way.
1. Parents come first. We all know it's not supposed to work that way, but with no-fault divorce the lessons we'd normally teach our children get turned upside down. Under no-fault, parents get to place their wants and needs first. The children's "best interests" get taken into account when it's time for the court to determine custody along with dividing up the rest of the chattel.
2. When the going gets tough - go AWOL. It's hard to see how the message to jump ship will provide children with the tools needed to overcome obstacles, problem solve, communicate, manage their anger or muster their courage. Character-building is usually acquired one way -- when we learn how to bale. But that's not what divorce teaches.
3. Pinky swears are worthless. Even the youngest school-age kid knows what a pinky swear means. It's been a long time since my daughters were little, but I still remember sealing important promises with them with a pinky swear. To us, this wasn't a joke. We made our solemn pledges, hooked our pinkies and committed to keeping our word. Unilateral no-fault divorce, however, teaches children that the most important pinky swears of all is meaningless. A promise that can be broken by merely crossing your fingers behind your back.
4. You're the center of the universe. Of course we don't really say that to our children and, hopefully, don't believe it either. But that's still the message our example sets when, in the absence of cause, we opt for no-fault and revolve the universe around ourselves. Unfortunately, this may teach kids that when they grow up they should believe likewise. After all, children of divorce do have higher divorce rates than their peers from intact families.
5. Lying is good and will get you what you want. Right or wrong? True or false? Haven't we taught our kids it often doesn't matter? Before no-fault divorce got enacted, you had to have a good reason to leave a marriage. And you had to prove it. (And, yes, I appreciate there were difficulties with domestic violence.) In some states, like New York, you could also have the court snip the knot provided both spouses agreed and waited awhile. But too many adults were impatient and wanted to get around the law. In some cases neither had done anything "legally" wrong, but still wanted out. In other situations, judges pressured one of the parties to admit fault in order to speed the case along. Indeed, the first time I appeared in divorce court the judge peered down at me with a scowl on her face and indicated she thought my wanting to save my marriage was merely an excuse for being stubborn.
And so, before no-fault, many parents simply lied under court pressure or by cooking up their own deal (divorcing parents all of a sudden communicating). Either mom or dad took the "blame" under oath, while lawyers and judges winked and let them get away with it.
But an outcry erupted. Lawmakers and lawyers said something had to be done to end the system of "institutionalized perjury" that made moms and dads testify falsely. (And forced attorneys and judges to go along.) So divorce laws were changed, thereby allowing parents to tell the truth.
6. It's important to share. One of the most important lessons parents teach their children is how to share. In a few days, millions of children will have the opportunity to put that lesson into practice when the law requires them to share their time between mom and dad. Some will open presents on Christmas morning with mom; others will open presents with dad. Some might spend a little time with both parents, in two houses, with two trees, and twice as many gifts. Some kids will be traveling and won't see mom/dad at all on Christmas because it's not her/his turn. Because parents, too, must learn to share their children.
Long before Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young wrote their famous hit words, Albert Einstein penned his: "Example isn't another way to teach, it is the only way to teach." Ask any child expert and they'll agree. Even in the best of circumstances, at times we parents all fail. Unchecked divorce compounds the problem many times over.
In some cases, the road may be paved with good intentions -- and I believe it is. However, while we may not have known exactly where the road would lead in 1970, in most cases, 40 years later we undoubtedly do.