Over and over, parents question whether their children can fare well after their parents’ divorce. As we have seen with our mediation clients for over a quarter of a century, our answer is unequivocally yes, children can thrive despite the end of their parents’ marriage.
Parents who select mediation in connection with dissolving their marriage usually raise this concern about their children first: “Our kids matter the most. We want our kids to be okay.” The important task is to balance what makes sense for parents while providing the best outcome for their children.
Once parents determine that their marriage cannot survive, there are a number of immediate child-related issues: first and foremost, how and when to tell the children. If the parents are both still living in the same home with the children, there is also the question of how to manage living together without exposing the children to parental conflict. In part, the answer depends on the ages of the children, the level of acrimony between the parents and their ability to compartmentalize their own disagreements in front of their children. Children pick up on anger long before they can verbalize their sense of discomfort. Perhaps to maximize the time they can each spend with the children and perhaps to minimize the family’s expenses, some parents can manage to continue living under the same roof and structure a plan to parent their children.
When parents no longer live together, a whole new set of issues arises: Where do the children live? With which parent, and for which time periods? How do the parents communicate about their children, and other matters, in front of their children? Do the parents wish to maintain as much of the “status quo” as possible, or is this a time for the parents to make a shift in their parenting paradigm? Sometimes these answers are easy – work schedules, day care, school districts and extracurricular activities sometimes dictate an answer. Sometimes parents are able to co-parent children in two nearby homes with a great deal of flexibility. Other times, the situation requires more structure.
Child-friendly divorce occurs when the parents are able to put aside their differences for the sake of their children’s best interests. If parents can provide a unified front: “Mommy and Daddy agree that we can no longer be married to each other,” children feel that their parents are still in control. When parents can be respectful of, and to, their former spouse, children are not placed in the middle of disputes. When parents are respectful of their children – understanding the developmental stages that children go through and being able to see their children’s needs as distinct from their own needs, children are free to do the work of growing up with the support of both parents. That is the essence of good parenting – whether the children’s parents are together or living apart.
In dissolving a marriage with minor children, the parents must determine (or the court will do it for them) who will have “legal custody” of the minor children. Legal custody provides the authority to make the big picture decisions about the health, education and general welfare of the minor children. One or the other parent is awarded “sole legal custody,” or the parents have “joint legal custody.” Legal custody also imparts the right to direct access to school and medical records of the minor children. In most cases today, parents share “joint legal custody” of their minor children, acknowledging that both parents want to be, and are, responsible for their children’s welfare.
Second, parents must determine (or the court will do it for them) a workable parenting plan. Different parenting plans can work for different families. All sorts of parenting plans can work so long as parents can collaborate on a parenting plan that makes sense for them and their children. Sometimes children do well with joint physical custody and sometimes children do well with primary physical residence in one place. Child-friendly divorce requires parents to consider the needs of their particular situation, as well as the developmental stages of their children in creating, and modifying, their parenting arrangements. When children are very young, frequent contact with each parent, if possible, is important. As children get older, a parenting plan with less frequent transitions for the children might be better – where is their homework, long term projects, hobbies, clothes, extracurricular activity accoutrements (the ice skates, the instrument, the stamp collection) and how can the children most easily get where they need to be. Older teenagers notoriously have little time for any parent – friends become their whole world. This does not mean parents drop out of their children’s lives – but that their relationship shifts and changes to accommodate the needs of the developing child as well. In many cases, it makes sense to re-evaluate the children’s living situation periodically to ensure that the children’s best interests are being served.
In an ideal world, divorce would be rare or non-existent, relationships would grow stronger every day, and there would be peace among all people. However, we live in the real world. When relationships fail, the best resolution allows each person to move forward independently while finding a way to co-parent their children. This provides children with different opportunities – to see conflict resolution in action, to see their parents move forward successfully even after a devastating disappointment, to experience two different parenting styles, and to see their parents cooperate despite the break-up of their marriage. This is a child-friendly divorce.