“Should we involve our children as we work out a parenting plan? What type of contribution do children typically make? “
With a few notes of caution, my experience is that giving children a voice can contribute to a more successful parenting plan in a number of different ways:
- Children can help parents understand the relative importance of certain decisions, such as remaining in the matrimonial home, attending the same school, attending a particular church, participating in extracurricular activities, living in an apartment vs. a detached home, being close to friends, etc. Their input can often lead to a resolution when these issues turn divisive.
- Children can tell parents whether they are ready (or not) to meet new partners. Remember, children will tell you what you want to hear — so if this is a sensitive issue, it is best raised by an impartial person.
- Children can indicate their level of comfort with how extended family members are responding to the separation. They can tell you whether these relationships provide helpful sanctuaries from the conflict.
- They can reveal abuse by parents, new partners, or extended family members.
- They can make suggestions about how important predictability and structure vs. flexibility or spontaneity are to them in the visitation plan and the priority to be given to their school work, social life, and activities. Who better than the child to let you know if the plan being considered takes his or her own schedule into consideration?
- Talking about the parenting plan and visitation with your children will allow special concerns to be aired and addressed. These concerns could range from where they will sleep to who will take care of pets at one house while they are at the other. Some children also worry about whether a divorce means that they will only be allowed to see one parent. What a relief to learn this is not the case!
The notes of caution are: do not draw the children into the conflict. If parents have conflicting views about what is best, an impartial child specialist is the best choice for drawing out a child’s fears, concerns, or preferences. Children should not be asked whom they love best or led to believe that they will decide the issue (unless they are over 14). This is an opportunity to make the child feel safe. They can be reassured that “Your parents will be deciding — with my help as a child specialist or mediator. The goal is to create a parenting plan that will take your views into account and be in your best interest.”
Clearly the topic of giving children a voice is an important one for interdisciplinary cooperation!
Dr. Barbara Landau, president of Cooperative Solutions, is a Toronto psychologist, lawyer, and mediator who assists separating families in creating parenting plans, improving their communication in the best interests of their children, and arriving at fair financial settlements. She is this year’s recipient of the prestigious John M. Haynes Distinguished Mediator Award for her contributions to the field of mediation.