The Best Interests of the Child
The legislative basis for parenting plan mediation and practice in Nebraska is found in Chapter 43 of the Nebraska Laws. The Nebraska Legislature holds that “it is in the best interests of a child that a parenting plan be developed in any proceeding under Chapter 42 involving custody, parenting time, visitation, or other access with a child and that the parenting plan establish specific individual responsibility for performing such parenting functions as are necessary and appropriate for the care and healthy development of each child affected by the parenting plan.”
This language created a boom in parenting plan work for attorneys and mediators in the state. The work has a clear legislative standard for evaluation. “The best interests of each child shall be paramount and consideration shall be given to the desires and wishes of the child if of an age of comprehension regardless of chronological age, when such desires and wishes are based on sound reasoning.” Reference to the “best interests” of a child or the child are found seven times in these four paragraphs.
It is hard to overestimate, in my experience, the power of this phrase and concept. When parents could stay focused on this standard in their negotiations regarding the details of a parenting plan, the results were uniformly good, and the process proceeded as smoothly as one could hope. When parents were distracted by their own interests, by their desires for revenge and punishment, by their own fears and frustrations, then the children suffered, and the plan was not all it could have been.
“The best interests of the child” is the guiding star and gold standard in such conversations. When that was the goal, everyone benefitted. When that was not the goal, everyone suffered.
It would seem that Jesus proposes something like this in the Markan composition. “Permit the children to come to me; don’t stop them, for of such as these is the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14, my translation). If it’s good for the children, Jesus says, it’s good for all of us. If a system or a perspective damages or rejects the children, then it’s not good for any of us. “Truly I say to you, whoever does not welcome the Kingdom of God as one would welcome a child, that one will certainly not enter it” (Mark 10:15, my translation).
Contemporary culture idealizes and even idolizes the image of the Child. People make lots of money feeding, clothing, entertaining, managing, educating, and medicating children. At least that’s true of the children of privilege in our culture. There is simply no conceivable limit to the number and quality of resources lavished on the “golden children” in America, most of whom happen to be White. Our culture seeks the “best interests” of those children, often at the expense of any and all others.
The discrepancy in childhood experiences and expectations varies, of course, with our zip codes. The differences in school funding between White suburbia and other neighborhoods is stunning. The access to quality education, decent and affordable health care, reliable transportation, quality and available housing, clean drinking water, fresh fruit and vegetables, full-service grocery stores, enrichment activities, entertainment opportunities, broadband internet service, and a host of other goods is strictly determined by the geography of color.
The best interests of some children matter. The best interests of other children do not.
How we have treated children of immigrants and children as immigrants is another sign that we do not hew to the standard of the best interests of the children. Stories of squalid detention centers, family separation, sexual and physical abuse, forced foster care, and other nightmares are regular parts of the current immigration story. Brown children clearly matter less to us than White children, no matter what we might protest to the contrary.
We continue to read reports of the horrific discovery of Indigenous children’s remains on the grounds of former Native schools in Canada. It is virtually certain that similar stories will be part of the reports being compiled on such schools in the United States as well. When those schools were in their heyday, the standard that defined the “best interests of the children” was to “kill the Indian in order to save the man.” Too often, that standard stopped at the first half of the sentence – killing the Indian.
The recent abduction and murder of Gabby Petito has raised concerns about the differential responses to missing White people and missing Indigenous people. Children of color who go missing simply do not receive the media attention or public resources that are poured into the location and potential rescue of missing White children. This is not alarmism. This differential has been documented repeatedly, both in the United States and Canada. Again, the best interests of some children are served, but not all.
We should not forget the high number of Black boys, under the age of sixteen, who have been murdered during police proceedings. Part of the White bias is to see these boys as older than they are and as much greater threats than would be perceived if they were White. When these murders happen, the White system closes ranks and ensures that the blame, if at all possible, falls on the child who is now dead rather than on White officers and a system that killed them.
The ways in which we welcome many children in our contemporary culture cannot be a model for how we should welcome the Kin(g)dom of God among us. That means that Christians should find themselves in a position of critiquing and resisting that systemic lack of welcome and care. Instead, the Church has been egregiously involved in the racism of valuing White children above all others. The Church ran most of the Indigenous schools now under investigation. Parts of the Church support the horrific treatment of immigrant children at our southern borders.
It is fair to say that the Church has also been at the forefront of efforts to work for the best interests of all children, especially in some of our social service and relief agencies. We ELCA folks can feel good about our efforts to serve children of all origins, our work on immigration and migration issues, our advocacy efforts on behalf of the vulnerable, our massive efforts to serve with and on behalf of the developmentally disabled. It is certainly not all bad news by any means.
But we tend to be a bit over-literal in how we apply this standard of care. Jesus embraces children for the sake of the children. But it should be clear from the text that he intends this embrace to symbolize his embrace of all the vulnerable members of Creation. “Using the child as a metaphor,” Zoro Dube writes, “Jesus challenged the hegemonic social boundaries and established a new system based on love, hospitality, and care for the marginalized” (page 2). Dube argues that the child in both Mark 9 and Mark 10 “can arguably be understood as representing the homeless and landless” in first century Palestine (page 5).
It may be that the economic pressures of Roman expropriation of land in Galilee caused families to break apart and marriages to disintegrate. Divorce, in that context, “shattered kinship ties and made people, especially children, vulnerable” (page 5). The Markan composer may be using Jesus’ words to address the difficult situations of the listeners. “The Markan story might refer to families that had suffered land dispossession,” Dube writes, “in addition to being rejected by their own families due to following Jesus” (page 6).
Children, in this perspective, are both actual sufferers in this system of oppression and symbols of the suffering happening in whole households and communities at the time. Dube offers this conclusion. “Jesus formed communities that responded to the economic challenges faced by homeless and landless peasants. Jesus’ gesture of welcoming a child inside the house captures the moral ethos of the nascent Jesus movement,” he continues, “that of hospitality and close fictive kinship. Such moral virtues,” he argues, “can be understood as a direct response to external social and political pressures confronted by the community” (page 6).
I think our life together would look much different if we embraced the standard of the Nebraska statute – which is a dim reflection of Jesus’ standard of care in our communities. What if we asked of every public policy effort, “What’s in the best interests of ALL the children?” Grappling with that question would force us, for example, to radically re-examine the property tax formula by which our local schools are funded. Currently, such formulas simply re-inscribe and reinforce the patterns of discrimination set down during the Jim Crow era and through real estate redlining.
What’s in the best interests of ALL the children? That’s a question that should have informed our responses to climate change over the last forty years. But my generation has failed in that regard. Now we know that everyone currently under forty years of age will deal with heat waves, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, food and water shortages, population shifts, and social disruptions on a scale not seen in human history. It appears that we cannot change this scenario. But we can work to mitigate the effects – if we care.
What’s in the best interests of ALL the children? There are no better investments in social capital than excellent prenatal care for all and free early childhood education for all. Economists can demonstrate the real cash dividends, the social “profits” from such efforts. Just as parents discovered in crafting and drafting parenting plans, when the focus is on the best interests of the child, everyone benefits – the child, the parents, the household, the community, and the society.
Why can’t we get that? Because serving the best interests of ALL the children will mean a reduction in the massive privileges extended to SOME of the children. Equality always feels like loss to the privileged. Will the Church be a voice to move people to accept that loss for the sake of ALL the children?
References and Resources
Nebraska Revised Statute 43-2921. https://nebraskalegislature.gov/laws/statutes.php?statute=43-2921.
Dube, Z., 2014, ‘Welcoming outsiders: The nascent Jesus community as a locus of hospitality and equality (Mk 9:33–42; 10:2–16)’, In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi 48(1), Art. #1379, 7 pages. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ids.v48i1.1379.
Lewis, Karoline (2). https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/dependence-needs.
Wolfelt, Alan. The Wilderness of Divorce: Finding Your Way. https://www.centerforloss.com/bookstore/the-wilderness-of-divorce-finding-your-way/#:~:text=Wolfelt%20describes%20ten%20Touchstones%20that,%E2%80%93%20a%20vast%2C%20mountainous%20forest.