Mandated Parent Education Programs: Lessons From the United States

Tali Schaefer, Doctoral Candidate, Columbia Law School


What should family law do about divorcing parents? A legislative wave sweeping through the United States has answered “teach them a lesson.” This legislation requires that divorcing parents take “parent education programs.” Thus it has turned these programs from a fad in American family courts into an established and mandatory stop on parents’ path to divorce. These programs, and the legislation mandating them, are currently being replicated in other English-speaking jurisdictions, typically relying on American materials and expertise. In Canada, parenting classes for divorcing parents are required in several provinces and are already mandatory for all divorcing parents in Alberta. An American expert participated in lobbying for similar legislation in the United Kingdom, where pilot programs are in the making. A close scrutiny of the American experience, therefore, is especially timely. This Article critically scrutinizes the American legislation and shows that it appeals to a widely held belief that divorcing parents are not only responsible for the adverse consequences of divorce on children, but that they should also be blamed for them. This blaming has resulted in legislation that does little to ameliorate children’s lives and downplays the detrimental effects of divorce on mothers. Instead, the Article proposes that letting go of blame and focusing on helping parents “move on” as quickly and steadily as possible would yield better results for a legal system committed to improving children’s well-being and to gender equality.