Why is our daughter on TikTok? What separated Kiwi parents fight about

Reality star Kim Kardashian is not the only one who’s at odds with her ex over co-parenting a child after rapper Kanye West objected to their daughter posting on TikTok. Jane Phare looks at what’s irking separated and divorced Kiwi parents.

Move over the Kardashians, it seems New Zealand separated parents are frequently in disagreement, if not at war, over setting boundaries for children, and what will and won’t be allowed in each family home.

Lawyers and mediators say childcare agreements have become increasingly problematic as shared care arrangements – such as week-and-week-about shared custody – become more common. And the complexity of Covid-19 and vaccines has added a new layer to fight about.

Issues include:
• What age a child should be allowed a mobile phone
• Age-appropriate access to social media
• How much screen time children are permitted in each home
• What they’re allowed to watch on YouTube
• Whether or not they should be vaccinated
• Whether or not they should be homeschooled in the event of a local Covid-19 outbreak.

Co-parenting has always had its fraught moments: one side stops paying child support; one, or both, parents make access difficult in spite of a Family Court agreement; one parent accuses the other of turning the child against them; one has a child secretly baptised; or a young daughter comes home with pink hairstreaks and pierced ears after an outing with the new stepmum. Fireworks are never far away.

Introduce social media, online gaming and Covid-19 into the mix and there’s fuel for an explosion. Despite the age limit of 13 or over for social media, many kids have already worked out how to get access to platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube, some with their parents’ knowledge but often without.

Kardashian drew a heated response from ex-husband West (now known as Ye) after she allowed their 8-year-old daughter North to appear on a mother-and-daughter joint TikTok account which now has more than 6 million followers.

North dances, lip syncs, puts on makeup, shows off her gingerbread collection and does mini Tik Tok appearances with her famous mother. West is not happy, saying his daughter is on TikTok “against my will” and asked his Instagram followers for advice, as you do.

Kardashian retaliated, also on social media, telling him to quit harassing them and saying North wanted to “express her creativity in the medium that she wishes with adult supervision — because it brings her happiness”.

By comparison, most Kiwi parents tend to keep their fury behind closed doors but their disagreements over parenting are no less fraught.

Auckland lawyer and mediator Jeremy Sutton says agreeing on screen time can be a biggie. One parent wants restrictions imposed on the amount of time children can use their phones, iPads and computers at home, while the other (often the dad, he says) will spend hours playing Fortnite or Minecraft with the kids.

“And the other parent is reasonably powerless to do anything about it.”

Sutton, who has three young children and at times works from home, concedes that parents can let screen-time restrictions slide in a Covid era, which makes it difficult to reset the rules. “We as parents in lockdown are all more forgiving about these things, aren’t we, but then it becomes a pattern.”

But having different rules, expectations and boundaries in different households can cause confusion, he says, particularly with equal shared care.

”From the child’s point of view, they get mixed messages.”

Auckland mediator and counsellor Claire Thompson says her advice to parents who can’t agree on those rules is to access a counsellor to help. If differences can’t be resolved she advises parents to undergo Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) mediation to focus on the children’s best interests.

She sees the usual range of disagreements, including screen time and social media, but also issues like one parent not adhering to dietary requirements or food intolerance restrictions, arguments about when and how to introduce children to new partners, contact from a parent while in the other parent’s care, and sharing the cost of extra-curricular activities

Wellingtonian Chris LaHatte has worked as a lawyer and accredited family mediator for more than 40 years and he says good communication between parents is the key. Back when he started it was more or less accepted that “Mum would have the children and Dad would visit”. Shared parenting was uncommon and not particularly supported by the Family Court judges, he says. Not so now.

But shared parenting brings its own issues, particularly when children are alternating between two households that have different rules and parents who can’t agree. LaHatte can’t understand why more separated parents don’t just phone each other to talk rather than trying to negotiate through texts, emails, on Messenger or WhatsApp. He even suggests that, every so often, they meet for a coffee to talk about the children.

“But sometimes they hate each other too much to do that,” he admits.

LaHatte finds that once parents start talking to each other they often agree on issues like screen time, age-appropriate viewing on the internet and when to give a child a mobile phone. What they often don’t agree on is how much time a child spends with each parent.

In the case of shared care, some want a week-and-week-about arrangement, others want the 2-2-3 model where a child alternates between parents in clusters of days. Getting both sides to agree can be problematic, LaHatte says.

“They disagree on every possible combination. Some parents are very opposed to any concept of shared care. Sometimes it’s the model they use.”

He finds older children often prefer the week-by-week arrangement but then there can be issues when sports gear and clothes are left behind at the other parent’s house. Lockdowns during Covid-19 outbreaks caused even more friction when a child had to stay with one parent at short notice, and more recently when they are required to isolate in one home after being identified as a close contact.

Most in the industry agree that Covid-19 has added a difficult layer to an already emotional area of family dynamics with mediators finding themselves working with couples who have very different, and entrenched, views on vaccination.

LaHatte: “Some are implacably anti-vax and others are very pro. Those are a bit difficult.”

Whether or not to vaccinate children in the 5 to 11-year bracket, and at what age, is another issue on which separated parents struggle to agree. LaHatte says it’s not his role as mediator to have a view.

“But of course I do, I’m vaccinated and boosted but I can’t say to parents ‘I think you ought to’ because then I’m interfering with their freedom of choice as to what they put in their agreement.”

Sutton has seen cases where one parent has gone ahead and had the children vaccinated without the other party’s approval.

“These are guardianship decisions which are to be made jointly and the other party can take formal steps through the family court in respect of this.”

Schooling has also become a point of contention with some parents wanting to homeschool their children because of concern around Covid-19. The other parent may be opposed to their child staying at home.

“Another common concern I have heard amongst anti-vax parents is around vaccine-shedding, the belief that having your child around a large proportion of vaccinated people can expose them to toxins in the vaccine,” Sutton says.

Some parents also have different views on social distancing and what they are comfortable with allowing their child to do. Issues include whether or not children are allowed sleepovers, can go on public transport or whether they’re allowed to mix with large groups, including taking part in sporting activities.

With regard to disputes over the vaccine itself, the courts tend to take a conventional approach to health, he says.

“The courts will follow Ministry of Health guidelines and orders can be made for children to be vaccinated, and attend school rather than be homeschooled. There is clear precedent of the courts ordering children to be vaccinated for the usual childhood vaccines even prior to Covid.”

But not all Family Court judges see the issue so clearly. This month a Whakatāne judge ruled against the mother of a 12-year-old boy who wanted him removed from the care of his “anti-vax” father until he was fully vaccinated. She sought full custody in December until her son was double vaccinated.

But Family Court Judge Stephen Coyle ruled that the boy, who is against being vaccinated, was old enough to make his own mind up. The boy’s mother also sought an order from the court that the parents were not to discuss anti-vaccination views around him, and any information about vaccination would be provided to him from a medically-approved source.

But Judge Coyle determined that such an order would be a “direct trampling” on the rights of freedom of expression.

“What in effect [the mother] is asking the court to do is to ensure that the child is only exposed to one discourse and narrative in relation to the vaccine.

“That is the type of response that could be expected in a totalitarian or communist regime, but not in a free and democratic society.”

Better than ending up in court is keeping the lines of communication open, mediators say. LaHatte says communication, or lack of it, is often the main problem between warring co-parents.

Sutton agrees. “Parents should be talking to each other.”

Be consistent, he says. “It is important that children have the same rules when they are living between two homes but we often see that rules around devices, bedtimes and homework can cause friction.”

And communicate with your children, the experts say, not just between the adults. Discuss the use of social media and keep an eye on what they’re watching.

Kim Kardashian no doubt wishes she’d done a little more “adult supervision” after her daughter decided to do a live stream tour of their Southern California home in December without her mother’s permission. North showed her fans her pink bedroom and toured parts of the house before walking into her mother’s bedroom with a “Mum, I’m live” greeting.

A shocked Kardashian, sitting in bed, tells her daughter to stop filming, saying, “you know you’re not allowed to. North, come on.”

• Parents who want to work out an agreement without ending up in court can access 12 hours of mediation services. The two main Ministry of Justice providers are Fairway Resolution and FDR Centre. Older children often have a “voice of the child” representative who can talk to them beforehand and then voice their views during the mediation process. The resulting FDR parenting agreement can then be registered in the Family Court.

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