Rules for Kids
Having just celebrated my first Christmas holiday with my nine-month-old son, I started to think about children whose parents are divorcing and all of the complicated issues that arise when custody is a contested issue, during the holidays and throughout the year. The reality is that when two parents make the difficult decision to live separately, their children’s lives must also change. Children of divorce have two homes. They spend holidays and special occasions shuffling back and forth between houses or dividing their time and attention to accommodate the realities of their new life. There is no avoiding this change, and while I have seen many, many successful instances where parents and children navigate such uncharted waters amicably and develop a new “normal,” I have seen other cases where the children of divorcing parents suffer from anxiety, depression or have difficulties with school and personal relationships as a result of being torn between two houses. Children, and the all important considerations surrounding their custody, are certainly at the top of my clients’ priority lists and as such, custody litigation is one of the most hotly contested areas of domestic law. Sometimes battles over the custody of children are inevitable. Sometimes real problems exist that necessitate asking a Court to step in and determine what is in a child’s best interest, because a parent cannot or will not do so. However, such vicious custody litigation is actually rare. In most instances, we are fighting over shades of grey much more than black and white. In those cases, especially, I believe that there are behaviors which parents engage in—many times without even realizing it—which have serious and sobering impact on their children in ways they never intended.
I recently read an article by Kara Bishop titled, “If Your Kids Could Make the Rules of Divorce,” which I have included below in its entirety to accompany this month’s blog. Ms. Bishop runs a program aimed at helping children deal with divorce in which she asks her 10-12 year olds to identify a list of “rules” they wish their parents would follow in regards to them during the divorce process, and afterward. I was deeply moved by this list, and I felt it important to share it. I have litigated many custody matters over the years and have witnessed well-meaning, loving parents behave in ways they would never approve of under “normal” circumstances. I believe it is important to give a voice to the children of divorce—perhaps in hopes that a review of these “rules” may provide a parent contemplating separation with some guidance in how to behave during the process. If you have questions about how to protect your children, or how to proceed if you are contemplating separating from your spouse and you have minor children, please do not hesitate to contact me for a free consultation.
As promised, here are the "Top Ten Rules" most commonly wished for by children of divorcing parents, taken from Ms. Bishop’s article:
1. Don't Say Bad Things About My Other Parent
This rule comes up every time we've done the exercise and almost always in the top five. It also seeps into many other exercises, from one where kids express their feelings artistically on postcards (see example below) to one where kids role play an advice-giving radio talk show. They really want to know how to stop the "bad-mouthing," especially those kids who have actually asked their parents to stop only to be told "you need to know what kind of person your ____is" or, "it's not bad-mouthing if it's true."
The kids want you to know that they "don't care if it's true;" they just "want it to stop" because "hearing bad things about someone I love hurts my heart".
The above rule is so pervasive that even after isolating it, it haunts our next rule:
2. Keep Us Out Of Adult Stuff
Bad mouthing the parent doesn't have to be an outright proclamation, it can be the subtle or not so subtle release of information beyond the child's years of comprehension and/or need to know. There is no educational or emotional value in telling a child, "there will be no ____ because your other parent is behind on child support," or "your ____ left us because they're boinking a co-worker."
3. Don't Make Me Feel Bad For Loving The Other Parent
At 11, Aaron (the inspiration for my work in this area), was the only child of three still willing to endure his mother's wrath in order to continue seeing his dad. He braved being called "stupid just like your dad," constant questioning — "why do you want to be with the person who broke up our family?" — and having his bags packed by the front door after being told, "if you like him so much, just go live with him."
By 14 he had given in, but only after the entire other side of the family sat him down and told him he was being a "traitor to his real family" for continuing to see his dad against his moms wishes and that he had to choose "us or him."
What I really want parents to understand is that while they may think their actions are only punishing their ex, they are also (and often even more so) punishing their child.
I'm pretty sure every parent reading this can imagine how sad and deprived their child would be without their special love. Can being deprived of the other parent's love be any less sad? With that knowledge, would you still do something that makes your child any degree of sad, just to punish your ex?
4. Learn To Get Along For Big Events
Kids want and deserve to have both parents at their game/play/graduation. You don't have to stand next to each other, but don't "hide the date" from the other parent.
5. Don't Make Me Choose Sides
They want you to know this is "the worst thing you could ever make a kid to do."
6. No Fighting In Front Of Us
As a prelude to one of our coping exercises, the kids have to pick a common situation that makes them so uncomfortable that they have to "get out of there." Seeing or hearing their parents fight is the one that comes up the most.
7. Don't Make Me A Messenger Or Put Me In The Middle
Even sending simple messages through your child is a burden. It's not their job to remember to pass the message along, get the message right, get an answer and then deliver the response back to you. They want you to "find a way to communicate."
8. Don't Share Or Take Your Anger Out On Me.
This one probably has the most variety in how it's written: "Don't share your anger with me," "shelter me from your anger," "don't take your anger at them out on me." But my favorite is "let me still be a happy kid."
9. Don't Ask Me To Spy
Our November group had a girl who was actually given a notebook to write her observations in. It's heartbreaking to understand that her sharing of this deed was really more of a confession. She knew it was wrong, but wanted to be an obedient daughter.
10. Give Me One-On-One Time With Both Parents
This rule and "give me equal time with both parents" would actually be higher on the list if we didn't separate them from their kin. But because there are powers (courts) that may keep this rule from becoming a reality, we often suggest that the kids try to steer away from the "equal" wording. That works about half the time. But not at all when we have one of those rare kids who gets to stay in their home while their parents rotate in and out. Then the request becomes downright insistent: "we stay home, you switch houses every week!"
Happy New Year everyone!
–Jennifer Bennett joined Hodges & Coxe PC as an associate attorney in 2010 and currently practices in the areas of general civil litigation and matrimonial law, focusing on divorce, child custody disputes, establishment and defense of child and spousal support obligations, equitable distribution and marital tort claims. You can reach her at (910) 772-1678 or at firstname.lastname@example.org