Defending Free-Range Parenting — in Divorce Court

Hi Readers — Allow me to introduce Rob, a dad headed for divorce court tomorrow. He sent this note asking whether I think what he did “proves” he is a bad dad, as claims his ex.

I have no idea who he is, why he got a divorce, or anything, really, other than the fact the incident he describes below strikes me as a decent parenting decision. Here goes:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am going to court on Monday morning to request an increase in my child custody from 6 days to 7 days per 2 weeks. Pivotal to my ex wife’s argument to deny me this increase is that,  “The plaintiff [my ex-wife] is concerned that the defendant has in the past made poor choices travelling with children. One one occasion, leaving their son alone at Disney World…” Here are the details from my ex-wife’s Affidavit to the court:

“In August 2009 the Defendant [me] traveled with the children to Disney World. He left [our son] alone when he and [our daughter] went on a ride. [Our son] had a cell phone which I had given to him… It is not appropriate to leave children alone in Disney World.”
She is using this as one of the fundamental reasons to deny an increase in my children’s custody. Personally, I don’t think this was an unsafe act. My son was never lost — he was attending a Jedi training camp inside one of the most safe,  secure and child-friendly places on the planet.
He made four attempts in over four hours to be chosen as part of a mock Jedi training camp. The first three we waited with him. The fourth time, my daughter and I returned about 10 minutes after the event was done and met my son at the agreed place, as arranged.
The children and I had also drilled and practiced extensively prior to leaving for Orlando regarding, “What to do if lost.” Which he never was! Our son is very responsible, intelligent, social 9-year-old. I don’t think that leaving him in Disney World for 30 minutes while attending a Disney-organized event should impact my ability to gain increased custody of my children.
Hi Rob — Neither do I. Disney is a place known not for abductions but for looooooong lines — lines you lingered in for several hours until, like many of us,  you found yourself torn: One child bored to tears. One desperate to become a  Jedi. You dealt with the situation in a safe, sane way — or so it seems to me. And frankly: What a minor “situation” this was! When I think about what 9-year-0lds were expected to do just a few generations ago –run errands, harvest crops, shoot dinner and drag it home — it makes me weep to think even 30 minutes unsupervised is now considered way beyond what they can handle, much less something that deserves the court’s attention!  I wish you luck. — Lenore

41 Responses

  1. I don’t think the dad made a bad decision. he clearly covered the bases of what the kids needed to know in case of separation, and everything worked out well with no drama or upset. the people at disney go to tremendous lengths to keep their amusement parks safe for kids, and they’re very successful at it.

    i wish parents would realize that a broken marriage does not need to equate to a broken family. respect and constructive comprimise need to be modeled whether you hate your ex or not.

  2. Last week I was spending some time with my mom when she came over to use my computer (as I am not a good son and have yet to fix hers). During her visit we started talking about what we refer to as ‘the divorce years’ (1979-1986). We really never discussed this much. But now that I am 34 and married we have found our relationship has moved on to a new stage.

    We started talking about different aspects of the divorce and the gentleman in the above article seems to be in the same trap my mom and I now see from our own experience. Divorce involves lawyers, and lawyers look for blood on anything. Lawyers are not commonly associated with sharks for no reason. They often forget the difference between right and wrong in favor of winning.

    That said, when I was a kid my dad made a decision once not unlike the story retold by Lenore. That decision came to my mother’s attention and soon to the attention of her attorney. They did the same thing. They brought my sister and I into the lawyer’s office and debriefed us, then used the information they learned against my father.

    Both sides were guilty of this sort of behavior. My mother’s boyfriends were often subject of many questionings by my father’s lawyers–always looking for a weakness to exploit. My father’s past alcoholism and notorious temper was a favorite subject of interrogation by my mother’s side of the bar. The result, as my mom and I discussed this week was simple: my parents spent more time in my childhood fighting each other than being parents. The only good that I can say came from the court battles was my understanding of the legal system and my distaste for the letters J and D when placed in close proximity to one another.

    As for my personal view of Rob’s decision: “How does the mother plan to teach independence if not on a smaller scale?” This whole story smacks of a lawyer and his/her investigators wanting to win rather than the interests of the child.

  3. It would be interesting to hear if Disney’s Jedi camp staff was fine with it too? I’m assuming they were, since it doesn’t sound as though it was an issue while the father & kids were at the resort. This strikes me as being along the lines of the kind of organized/semi-supervised drop off activities family friendly resorts often have. Maybe presenting “proof” of such would help this father make his point?

    I could see *potential* for a problem if the kid in question was wandering around on the larger, (assume) unfamiliar resort on his own, but I do believe that once kids hit 9-10 or so, child’s maturity and experience/comfort level with being on his own needs to be taken into consideration.

  4. I don’t think you guys have seriously considered what could have happened here. Do you realize how many Disney movies involve kids leaving their homes without parental supervision or approval? The Darling children fly out a window with Peter Pan, Alice sneaks down a hole after a rabbit while her (babysitter? teacher?) isn’t watching, Ariel makes a covert deal with a witch to help her escape her father’s kingdom, and don’t even get me started on the trouble caused when little Simba sneaks away from Dad. It shows a serious lack of judgment to take your kids somewhere which is so obviously lacking in family values.

  5. I might see a point of concern if the kid were, say Six years old. But seeing he’s 9 I don’t see any real problem. Disney is a place designed for kids. it’s not the middle of Afghanistan.

    I worry about these people that feel they need to be with their kids EVERY minute. I can just see mommy dragging a 9 year old into the ladies room because she has to go, and can’;t bear the thought of leaving him alone outside for 30 seconds.

    On that thought, I wonder if that would have more psychological impact than the “being left alone” ?

  6. I can just see mommy dragging a 9 year old into the ladies room because she has to go, and can’;t bear the thought of leaving him alone outside for 30 seconds.

    Oh, gosh, wasn’t there a Dear Abby about that a few months back?

  7. A counter argument is that he made sure BOTH children got the most from their trip to Disney World. The waits are so well known that there is an iPhone app to see how long the wait is for various Disney rides.
    The biggest mistake the dad made was who he married, but that observation won’t go over too well in court.

    Maybe her son can use his Jedi training to say to her “This is not an example of bad parenting”

  8. Goodness, I don’t see how the father is neglectful in any way in this situation. Clearly at nine his son was old enough to be left alone for half an hour, especially to take part in an activity organized by Disney staff and with a means of contacting him should the need arise. How can this be portrayed as evidence of poor choice?

    (Especially at Disney! There are cameras everywhere. The moment there is a problem the staff instantly appear as if from nowhere to help. That in itself is bizarre…)

  9. Maybe the Dad can turn it around. “This is the kind of mother so obsessed with fantastical concerns that she smothers the kids and doesn’t allow opportunities for safe growth in well chosen safe environments. An increase in time with the father, who has a perfect safety record and who in this case did nothing unreasonable, would be good for child development.

    (of course we only know his side, which is what I am basing this thought on)

  10. I can’t think of very many places SAFER than Disney World, considering the extensive and state-of-the-art security available there. I’m assuming there were adults at this Jedi training camp. I’d say the boy was at least as safe there as he is at school, and probably safer.

  11. I agree that this has become an issue between the divorce attorneys and the divorced couple. I wonder if the plaintiff’s attorney filled her head with that old urban legend of children getting snatched from amusement parks and just sees more billable hours.

  12. James – what will definitely have more impact than 10 minutes alone in Disney World (which sounds like bliss to most 9 year olds) will be his mother using this to limit his access to his father. The impact from that, and from the mindset that surrounds it, will have an enormous impact on both of these children.

    Honest to god, I do wish divorced parents could just remember that they are the grown-ups and should behave accordingly.

  13. if this helps, here’s the official jedi training page on disney’s website

  14. @Kenny, you made me laugh out loud.

  15. I was under the impression that when children went into disneyworld, it was noted who they came in with. Not sure if it was via camera, or embedded in their arm bracelets, but I have heard that Disney has lots of good info on where every kid is at any moment.. Something about lots of missing kids that wander off, and the occasional parent in a custody dispute wanting to grab the kid and run…

  16. No big deal. The child is nine, had a cell phone, and a clear plan for reconecting with his dad & sister.

  17. I don’t think anyone has really mentioned this yet: The son will no doubt find it his fault that he absolutely had to go to the Jedi Camp and try for a fourth time to be chosen. He will think how could he have been so selfish to put his father in a position to make such a decision. How will his relationship with his mother be tarnished by this event where a wonderful experience had by all was turned into a weapon against his father.

  18. It seems like the only lesson being taught here is for your children learning what to hide from one or the other parent.

    I have done the same at Disneyland with my own two sons. I have let my 9 year old stand in the one hour line for the flume ride while I took the younger one on something else. We met in the arranged place. Both sons were happy. Disneyland is one of the safest places anywhere. And if your child is mature enough to follow directions on where to meet you…then I hope you have many opportunities to do it again.

    I grew up near Disneyland. I had friends whose parents would drop them off there for the entire day when they were my children’s age. That would have been in the 1970s. Compared to that…I feel like an overprotective hawk.

  19. Oh, Jewellya, what an excellent point! It goes along with others saying that divorce does not have to equate hostility. My ex and I were always very aware of the kids and how they would feel. Not only that but we’re stuck together for life (or at least until the kids are 18) so we might as well get along. There’s no point in making a bad situation worse. We refuse to use our children as pawns and have made sure that they know that we still like and respect each other because we gave each other the two best things that ever happened to either of us. Sad…just sad. I feel for those children.

  20. Handling of contentious post-divorce negotiations by the courts can vary a lot from state to state and even from one district to the next.

    In Iowa, where I was divorced (and fought battles parallel to Rob’s) in the 90s, the letter of the law was that 50/50 joint custody could be awarded; in practice, though, judges almost never did so unless both parents fought vigorously for it.

    Similarly, visitation schedules giving the non-custodial parent more than the standard amount of time (at that point, every other weekend, plus maybe one weeknight meal) were seldom considered unless both parents were on board. And, less-than-standard amounts of visitation were only considered if the non-custodial parent had a long history of gross negligence.

    That worked in my favor during the divorce proceedings when I insisted on having standard visitation, denying my ex’s attempt to cut it to a fraction of that.

    Once the divorce was finalized, at least as my attorney described the status quo in Iowa, the dynamic in the courtroom shifts: Judges were much more likely to give the custodial parent space to operate freely, not wanting to lend their courtrooms to micro-managing family squabbles.

    In my case that reluctance to intervene even carried over to my ex’s blatant violations of the divorce decree. Under the legal definition of “joint legal custody” (as differentiated from physical custody), both of us were to have equal access to information (medical, school, etc.) and participate equally in health care and school-related decision-making.

    I was given the option of filing contempt charges (i.e., the ex was violating the court’s orders in the decree) when I was blocked from receiving info and participating in decisions, but also informed that such charges seldom prevailed in court.

    It sounds like Rob’s divorce is in place and he’s going for a modification. I hope for his sake that the standard practices of family law judges in his local courts are better than what I encountered.

  21. I agree with Mae Mae and Jewellya. My husband & I seperated and divorced over a year ago, and our children have adjusted very well because we make sure to put our personal differences aside and get along for their sake. We even went together to our daughter’s Girl Scout outing and had a great time! Obviously this father is good enough to take his kids to Disneyworld for a vacation, so why should he be deprived of more time at home with his children, just because the mom is making a huge issue out of nothing? And when their children are adults, what will they remember about their childhood? That their mom was good enough to allow them to spend as much time with their father as possible, or that their dad was deemed unfit because she took issue with one tiny incident that was obviously fun and safe for them? It’s sad that some parents just can’t see the bigger picture when it comes to their children.

  22. My how times have changed. I can only imagine what today’s parents think of my dad’s actions. When I was 14 me, my brother and our 4 friends went to Six Flags (in Gurnee, IL). I was the oldest at 14, then my friend Jaime who was almost 14, my brother who was 12, Jaime’s younger brother, Jorge, who was also 12, our neighbor Scotty who was 11 and my best friend, Kelly, who was 9.

    My dad parked in the lot and off we went with pre-paid tickets in hand. My job was to keep track of my brother and the younger 2 kids. Jaime and Jorge were basically on their own to look out for each other. But we all stuck together. We made sure if someone didn’t want to go on a ride they always had a buddy to wait with. I stuck pretty much with Kelly everywhere we went because she was my responsibility, although she was a very mature 9yo and would have been fine on her own if we had gotten separated.

    We had a blast, went on all the rides, played games, ate, separated into 2 groups (those that liked the big rides and those that didn’t) and went in different directions agreeing to meet up at a certain point in a couple hours. Everyone survived. When the park closed at 10 we made our way back out to the car where my dad was waiting. We had no cell phones (this was 1991) and only a few quarters to call home if we needed (which didn’t matter because my dad, in the car, had no cell phone either.

    I’m sure my dad would be arrested for child endangerment now a days. I never once felt anything but safe while exploring the park with my brother and friends. Those were good times.

  23. Well currently I have full custody and my ex husband is taking me to court. He has visitation, and his reason filed in court papers for wanting to change custody are that the kids are made to stay outside after school. Now, part of this is true, they are made to play outside after school on sunny days instead of watching TV. We even let them walk up the road to play with friends. I’m amazed that the court system and lawyers allow this sort of stuff. Of course my attorney says this is in no way I change of circumstance to cause custody to move, but I am guessing I’m going to have to defend n front of a judge and the lawyers the whole concept of free range parenting and why it is OK that my kids play outside.

  24. Jen Connelly I grew up doing the same type of thing at Astroworld. I was in JH when we got our season passes so 11 – 13. Sis was 7 – 9. Sis is a daredevil. I didn’t like some of the rides – so I would wait in line with sis and our friends. Then I would wait till their ride was over and leave with them. The staff got to know us and had no problem with us doing this.

    I remember one lady going off and saying that my friends shouldn’t abandon me because something might happen to me. I was in full view of staff and another 20 people. We just avoided her the rest of the day.

    We even left the park each time. We would take a picnic lunch and water bottles to save money. We would have to leave the park to eat our lunch – outside then come back in. We were there several days a week for the whole summer.

    Sis was saying the other day to bad her kids won’t have that experience – but only because Astroworld closed.

  25. What I found funny was that this is an argument against going from an eight/six split to a seven/seven split on days. So the Dad’s good enough for six days, but not seven?

    And on the seventh day he left his son alone at Disney World!

  26. At DisneyWorld, a child of 9 is probably tall enough to ride a ride such as tower of terror or rockin rollercoaster alone….now that is more frightening to me!

  27. Sam: Speaking of urban myths, can we stop spreading the one that says that all attorneys are sharks and will do anything to squeeze more money out of their clients who (apparently) don’t have enough sense to tell them “I don’t want to do that”? My husband is an attorney in a small town in general practice and believe me, he’d like to have nice, clean divorces with reasonable people on both sides. When an attorney makes a lot of money on a divorce it’s bc the couple drag it out, refuse to compromise and are incapable of having a civil conversation. I’ll bet you most attorneys would prefer NOT to make money that way. And believe me, at least in our case, he’s not making a killing.

    I think the larger point here is that we have a mother who refuses to let the father have the children for ONE more day in a two week period. And is willing to fight (and pay an attorney) to keep him from doing it. Sounds ike my husband’s ex-wife, and too many parents that I’ve heard of, who are sure they’re the only one of the couple who know how to parent and would be willing to do about anything to keep the ex-spouse from having more time with the kids bc they know how hurtful it is, and in order to get back at their ex they’re willing to hurt their children in the process, in the name of “good parenting”, of course. .

  28. The amusement park at the Mall of America where we live requires an adult to ride with smaller kids on lots of rides. I’m always leaving one six year old to wait while I take the other one on the ride and then switch off. Otherwise they couldn’t go on the rides at all. None of the rides is more than about 5 minutes, but even if it were longer, I can’t imagine what harm is going to come to my kid standing in a crowd of people waiting for a ride.

    I figured at age 9 I’d be dropping them off to go to the amusement park by themselves, as I did when I was that age. Of course, now I have to worry about whether I’m going to get in trouble for doing so.

  29. The child was 9 years old, not 9 months old!! Gimme a break.

  30. I had the exact same experience as Jen Connelly. When I was 8, my mom dropped me, my sister (11), and brother (12) off at Six Flags in Gurnee, IL for the day. She returned to pick us up that night. I don’t remember any drama happening that day.

  31. Grew up going to Great America in Gurnee as well. My parents usually went with us, but we always split up and met again at lunch time (so they could pay ;D ). Then we would split again and meet at the exit at closing time. I couldn’t have been more than 10 the first time that happened – and I might have been younger.
    We also made the trip multiple times with our church. There were adult chaperones, but they were more contacts than companions.

    I also would like to concur with the poster who discussed lawyers. There certainly are some horrible one – though as an attorney’s wife I can tell you that they are the minority. My husband prefers to never do divorces. People turn ugly and if there are kids involved it is a sad sad thing.

  32. Good luck to Rob! I really hope that things turn out well for you.

    When we were at Disneyworld when my son was 9, we actually had an employee lecture us on the fact that we let him get about 20 yards away from us. We’d timed our visit for one of the slowest days of the year; we also had our 6-year-old and our 13-month-old with us; plus two grandparents. The thing was he’s small for his age, so they thought he and the 6-year-old were twins. Still, though, 20 yards? When there were only a handful of people in the part of Disneyworld where we were? Come on. From that point on I was a lot more scared of the employees than I was of the non-existent “stranger danger”!

  33. I was 10 years old and my brother was 12 when our family visited Disney World. I remember during that visit that there were a few times when my brother and I went off on our own, agreeing to meet back at a particular time and place. This was 1976. No cell phones! Guess what? We’re all still alive! : )

  34. I love the Snopes article linked above. Classic fear-mongering through chain letters.

    It also included a link to the FBI Missing Persons page. This page includes 61 people, 2 of which are marked ‘Recovered’. So we have 59 missing people across the country being investigated by the FBI. That’s fewer than the members of Congress.

    30 of these people were adults at the time they disappeared. So that leaves 29 children missing. Six of the children’s cases have been open for more than 10 years, with the oldest disappearance in 1959.

    So in the last 10 years, 23 children have disappeared across the country? And that’s not counting those that were taken by family or relatives – one listing even said specifically that the child is believed to be in the custody of the father!

    It’s not exactly “children are snatched away every day”…

  35. Oh and P.S. I counted adults as 18+. I wish I had noted how many of the “children” were in the 14-17 age range – it was quite a few…

  36. We used to get dropped off at Uncle Cliffs amusement park. I was the oldest at 14, the others were 13, 11, and 8. If the younger one didn’t want to ride a ride, she would wait until we got off. No one worried. We spent the entire summer going there without our parents.

  37. Our 7yo son just did the Jedi Training Academy at Disney World last week, so I know exactly what line Rob is referring to…the one surrounded by ropes with 1 or 2 cast members milling about close by. A 9yo with a phone would be fine, as would a 9yo without a phone.

  38. […] Defending Free-Range Parenting â?? in Divorce Court « FreeRangeKids […]

  39. Another anecdotal data point: In elementary school, the 5th-grade class trip was to an amusement park (Hersheypark, specifically), where we all dispersed for the day (though buddied up). This was in 1986.

  40. Lenore, After reading the last paragraph of the Snopes article, all I can say is that I hope you are copy writing everything on your blog. Otherwise Law and Order may be here stealing script ideas!

  41. When me and my wife separated through divorce, we had no choice but to settle arrangements when it comes to co-parenting. We have 2 young kids and we don’t want them to suffer just because we needed to part ways. So me and my ex-wife are working hand in hand to take care of the kids. My wife also bought co-parenting planner/organizer from which really is of big help in this process. Hopefully we’ll get things flowing smoothly as planned. Thanks for sharing this! 🙂

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