Read most Family Court custody orders and you’ll see a couple of lines that discourages the parents from getting the children involved in the divorce and custody disputes. Some orders go as far as stating the parents shall not speak with the children about such things. The genesis of these orders is obvious – the Family Court doesn’t want to get the children embroiled in the parents’ divorce or custody disputes. But how practical is that? Are parents really expected to shield their children from that which is right in front of their eyes? Are parents expected to lie to the kids? The answer isn’t easy but through long experience and seeing what works and what doesn’t, I have come to the following conclusion – use a “need to know” basis as your rule of thumb.
Your children are not you. They are also not their other parent. They are their own individual hearts and minds. While Johnny’s stubbornness may be similar to dad’s and he may have mom’s shyness, the faster you recognize they have their own thoughts, emotions and perspective, the faster you will come to grips with the fact you have to treat your children like human beings…especially when they get to the grade school age and you and your co-parent aren’t the only “influence” in their lives.
So how do you talk to them about custody? You tell them the minimum they must know and nothing more.
Here are what kids should know:
1. Drop off and pick up times and places;
2. Who is handling the transportation;
3. The length of time the children will be at each parent’s house;
4. If, like most custody orders, there is a repeatable schedule, then tell the children about that schedule.
5. If there are specific holiday or vacation schedules coming up, tell them that.
You treat custody and visitation like a business. It’s just like a work schedule. You have a shift, you follow it. If something changes because you and your ex agreed to a change, the kids must know.
Here are what kids should not know and what, if you tell them, may land you in trouble with the Court:
1. Why the custody schedule is the way it is:
That’s not their concern and the only reason a parent would have to mention such things is to disparage the other parent. Even if the parent is right and the other parent is an unreasonable and inflexible jerk, that type of opinion (even if you consider it a “fact”) should never be spoken to your children.
2. Why or how you want to spend more time with the children:
They know that. You don’t have to remind them. If you “act” like a good parent, you won’t have to convince your children that you are one. If you give lip service to this issue, all you do is project your own insecurities toward the children.
3. Why you and their father or mother went through a divorce:
It doesn’t matter. You are either going through a dissolution or you have gone through one. If the kids ask, you simply tell them “it’s complicated and we’ll discuss it when you’re older.” That’s it. Otherwise, stop talking. If your children express or imply that they feel responsible for the divorce (a completely normal reaction and emotion), assure them that is not the case. One parent I represented, at my advice, said the following to their two daughters when both of them brought up this subject several times and it was very effective, “how much we love you is the one thing your dad and I always agreed on.” My client told me it had an immediate impact and she could tell it was a positive one.
4. What you intend to do in the future about custody:
Like number 1, such a conversation would only take place if your intent is to emotionally abuse the children and disparage the other parent. Veiled threats get you nowhere good and if you intend to get more time with the kids in the future, then keep that fact between you and your lawyer. Still not convinced? What happens if you tell them and fail to prevail in Court. Now what will the children think of you? You have nothing to gain with such a discussion.
You might as well smack your kid around if you start talking to them about issues like child support, alimony and such because such issues have no redeeming purpose in discussions with the children other than abuse. Parents who do such things generally face the wrath of the Family Law Judge and when I see the parent on the other side of the case engaging in such conduct, I ask him or her to put a stop to it immediately or the Court will, with an attorney fee bill attached.
It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be. But common sense and the rule of thumb of stating things on a need to know basis (and for the most part keeping your opinions to yourself about the divorce and custody issues) is the best way to keep the children emotionally healthy and yourself from expending wasted negative energy.