Helping Fathers be Parents


Child Support in the Age of Complex Families

The law is evolving in response to behavioral science. If Criminal Law 1.0 was capital punishment for all felonies and mutilation of offenders, and Criminal Law 2.0 meant due process, public defenders, and “humane” incarceration, we are now implementing the more effective Criminal Law 3.0—restorative justice practices, treatment courts for a growing range of offenders, and probation officers trained in “motivational interviewing”—which essentially asks what do you want to accomplish in this probation and how can we help you?

Kathryn Edin’s field research has educated us all about unmarried parenting and poverty. Now she is using her knowledge of life on the ground to give us the most comprehensive program I have yet seen for Child Support 3.0, and her ideas are clearly presented in “Child Support in the Age of Complex Families,” (Issues, Winter 2018).

A wise friend, a psychologist, once told me, “The normal response of a healthy adult when faced with coercion is to resist.” The truth of this statement has been borne out to me time and time again over 20 years on the bench. By the time I have to order someone to do something, the battle is just about lost. Far better to ask, What do you want to accomplish at this point in your life and how can we help you? This approach, soundly grounded in behavioral science, undergirds the 3.0 wave of legal processes.

It is not just the court system that is following behavioral science to develop the wave of “3.0” versions. Consumers now can easily research any medical condition, and doctors are finding that issuing “doctor’s orders” is less effective than asking people about their health goals and pointing out the tools to accomplish them. My wife is a psychologist, and the continuing education brochures I keep seeing in our mailbox advocate mindfulness training for every variety of mental distress from anxiety to addiction to pain.

Business too, always on the lookout for effectiveness, is well into the 3.0 wave. Bottom-up engagement is proving more successful than top-down commands. I just finished reading the book about the fabulous success of Bridgewater Capital, Principles, in which the author, founder Ray Dalio, keeps coming back to his fundamental principle of “radical truth and transparency.”

The Co-Parent Court Edin uses to illustrate the value of empowerment and respect was started because some of us in Minneapolis were dissatisfied with the Child Support 2.0 process that summoned droves of young men into court to tell them, “Congratulations, you are the father. Here is your child support order.” We suspected it would be much more productive to ask them what kind of father they wanted to be and how could we help.

The carefully evaluated results demonstrate that behavioral science applies to parenting just like everything else. My biggest fear in starting the program was that people would blow us off—they just wouldn’t come. Instead, in a highly unstable population, two-thirds of the parents completed the workshops. And I worried that we would push troubled people together and just foment conflict. Instead, most of the parents worked out comprehensive parenting plans together. Just as Edin predicted, the vast majority of the low-income men I encountered, despite all the employment, health, housing, and legal issues in their lives, very much wanted to take pride in being good fathers. We just empowered and respected them.

The motivation behind Child Support 2.0—formal legal processes to try to coerce men into being responsible fathers—was always admirable. But now we just know better.

By the way, Edin mentions in passing the “withering” of the current welfare (TANF) system, which is based on version 2.0 sanctions to coerce work. What would Welfare 3.0 look like? How about asking a parent what do you want to accomplish for your family in the next year and how can we help you financially to do it?

Judge, Fourth Judicial District
Hennepin County, Minnesota

Cite this Article

“Helping Fathers be Parents.” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 3 (Spring 2018).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Spring 2018