Every year, a million children see their parents divorce.
And often, the most pressing concern of those two million
parents is: "Who gets the kids?"
Angry, hurt and overwhelmed with both the divorce or separation
process and their own feelings, parents may try to gain the
upper hand by demanding full custody of the children. Their
anxiety is fueled by well- meaning but disastrous partisanship
of friends and relatives, who frequently urge them to fight
for the kids in court. Before long, the family has slipped
into a long, expensive and emotionally draining journey through
the world of child custody litigation, the result of which
is likely to please no one.
Why to Avoid Court
It's true that courts are responsible for preserving and protecting
children's "best interests" when their parents divorce. All
but a few states have laws that spell out what factors a court
should consider when determining what best interests are.
So why not let an impartial judge resolve your sticky custody
and visitation disagreements?
Simply because laws set standards for children in general
-- not your children in particular. A judge or court-appointed
evaluator must try to understand the family's situation and
each parent's position within a few minutes or hours, and
then to make wise decisions with the children's best interests
Although state laws set guidelines for custody decisions,
judges have considerable discretion in interpreting them and
imposing their own views of what constitutes a good environment
for children. The chance that a judge's decision will be ideal
for your specific situation is slim.
With rare exceptions, you can do a whole lot better crafting
your own decisions, which fit your unique situation, rather
than hiring lawyers and turning the ultimate decisions over
to a judge. You and the other parent can negotiate a parenting
plan with the other parent that reflects the needs and best
interests of their children and assures them the maximum possible
contact with both parents.
Only if the children's safety or well-being is at risk and
their parents cannot agree on a way to reduce that risk can
court intervention be crucial.
Making a Bad Situation Worse
Even if your separation or divorce will be better for your
children in the long run, for the short term, most children
feel that things couldn't be worse. Divorce can shake a child's
confidence that he or she will continue to be loved, cared
for and safe, even when the child understands the reasons
behind the decision.
A custody battle only makes things harder. Most researchers
who study the effects of divorce on children believe passionately
that using the court to resolve custody issues is a mistake
in all but a few cases. It is far better, in their opinion,
for parents to negotiate their own parenting agreement, with
help from mediators, counselors and lawyers as needed.
No matter how much you may believe that your life would improve
if you won and the other parent lost a custody battle, the
fact remains that children need both their parents. That means
that part of being a good parent after separation or divorce
is finding a way to work with the other parent -- at least
as far as the children are concerned -- rather than fighting
over custody in court.
Negotiate? You Must Be Kidding
Not surprisingly, most divorcing parents panic at the prospect
of working together. Fortunately, even couples with a painful
or bitter past -- or ones going through an intensely acrimonious
divorce -- can devise a successful custody and visitation
agreement that favors the best interests of the children.
Even if the other parent is inflexible, or both parents want
something mutually exclusive -- for example, sole custody
of the children -- the process is not doomed. If parents can
describe their concerns, goals and perceptions of the situation
in some detail, they will at least have a good list of issues
to address and resolve. And there's plenty of help available.
To improve your ability to work with the other parent, you
may want to improve your negotiation skills, try to find ways
to set aside your feelings regarding the separation or divorce,
and get some outside help from a mediator or counselor.
The real key to success is to focus on your children, not
a potential outcome in court. Think about your children's
needs and wishes, your goals for them and concerns you have
about their health, education, and their relationships with
parents, siblings or other important people.
If both you and the other parent put your kids' interests
first, you'll probably find that you can adjust your positions
enough to produce a good agreement. Both of you will be in
the best possible position to ensure that your custody and
visitation arrangements make sense and serve your children
well as they grow to adulthood, and work for you as well.