A friend reported over-hearing a conversation between a mother and child recently. The mother was telling the child to tell her father things that basically the mother should have been discussing with him. And the child was telling the mom how the father wouldn’t listen to her as “that’s not what’s in the court papers”.
I’d like to be able to say this hardly ever happens. But I can’t. During the past 20 years, I’ve often heard similar conversations myself or more tragically — children’s versions of these conversations.
This is probably the second “wish” kids have who have parents involved in custody litigation. When I asked kids what they would wish for if they could have anything they want, the number one answer: I wish my mom and dad would stop fighting. The second: I wish my parents would stop telling me to tell the other one stuff. Why can’t they talk to each other? (NOTE: Kids who were not involved in the fighting between the parents — well, they would wish for toys, animals, etc. Normal kid stuff.)
I don’t care if you can’t stand the sight of your ex (or soon to be ex) you should NEVER put your child in the middle by asking them to do YOUR job as a parent. I imagine this makes them feel like they are in a big swirling vortex of water with no way to escape the rocks.
Here’s how a typical dialogue goes:
Parent #1: Tell your mom(dad) I’m picking you up next Friday at noon for our trip to (pick a state) and we won’t be back until Monday sometime.
Child: Mom (Dad) already said I couldn’t go on the trip because it’s not your weekend.
Parent #1: I don’t care what she (he) said. We’re going and you’re going with us. Just tell her (him) to have you ready.
Child: Dad (Mom) said to tell you…
Parent #2: You tell your Dad (Mom) if he/she has something to tell me, he/she can call me him(her)self.
Child: Please. Just listen. He (She) is going to pick me up at noon on Friday…
Parent #2: Oh no he’s (she’s) not! I’ve already told you to tell him (her) that’s not his (her) weekend. The court papers say it’s my weekend and …
You get the idea. Now what are the problems with this scenario?
1. The child is completely caught in the crossfire between the parents. There are no good options for him and both parents end up getting angry — or at least appearing angry — at the kid, taking their frustrations out on him.
2. The parents are each behaving in a negative manner toward the other with the child a center-piece to their animosity.
3. The child should never have even known about the trip/plans or whatever event prior to the parents discussing it and agreeing on the child’s involvement if not that first parent’s access period. This only leads to disappointment for the child if he can’t go. Maybe the other parent already has something planned because it was his/her weekend and it really is not convenient. Or, maybe they’re just being a first-class you know what. But, the child shouldn’t be involved in this.
If you think you’ll make the other parent look bad and gain credits in your column, you’re making a HUGE mistake. Do this often enough and the child will see through the manipulation and end up despising that behavior in you because of the misery it causes. Besides that…why should either of you have a column? Why keep score? If you want to measure something, why not measure how much happier your child is when not involved in your parental conflict?
4. Did you see the irony in the above situation? Parent #2 is telling the child if the other parent has something to say he or she should talk to them directly. However, in the same breath, they’re telling the child to pass along this message to the other parent. Again — a no win situation for the child.
5. The child should know you each love him. You each want to spend time with him. He should not need to know there are “court papers” that have to tell you how to do so. Most orders will say something similar to: “In the event the parents are unable to mutually agree, then…” Usually parents are allowed to change periods of access if they “mutually” agree. You probably (check yours) don’t have to be stuck with what is outlined in your court order. If you throw “that’s not what’s in the court papers” in your child’s face all the time, what will they think about you when they find out — and they will — that you had options all along?
6. You are the PARENTS! If something needs to be discussed, it should be discussed between the two of you. Not through the child. That is one of your parental jobs: communicating with each other. Even if you don’t like them. Even if they’re the biggest a-hole on the planet.
I know some of you will say that you just can’t talk to the other person. Or, they’ll be belligerent with you. Or, whatever excuse you have. Seriously. I don’t care. Nor, in most cases, do the family courts. And if you’re doing this to your child, it will not bode well for you during any custody litigation. What the courts and caseworkers look for is what is in the best interests of the child. Using them as your messenger is not.
If you don’t like conversing with the other parent about certain topics or you know it’s going to cause a ruckus…why on earth would you delegate that to your child knowing how the other will respond? As a good parent, you should want to protect your child from scenes like that. Right? As a good parent, you don’t put your comfort before your child’s. Right? If you’re making them the go-between, YOU ARE NOT BEING A GOOD PARENT, even though you may excel in other areas of parenting. If you want to score something, this will give you an “F”, a HUGE FAIL, in parental conduct.
You must find a way to communicate effectively with each other without a lot of arguing, name-calling and other forms of belittling. I’ll be discussing some ways to do this in future blog posts.
Before I end this post though, I want to point out that there are some (very few) legitimate exceptions to one-on-one parental communicating. If you have a protective order prohibiting you from communication, then don’t. If there was domestic violence (best to be able to prove this though) in the past and the possibility of future violence, then you need to protect yourself — without question.
However, you will need to find alternative means of communicating with the ex. For instance, you can go through your attorney. But, unless you have substantial resources this can get costly. You may want to have your attorneys come up with someone who can communicate on your behalf with the other person or with their proxy. This person(s) should be someone who is not easily angered and can be respectful to the other party. Their job is not to make decisions for you, but to be a stand-in for you in passing along information between you and the other parent.
Grandparents sometimes make good alternates. Sometimes not. It depends on whether they can control any negative feelings they may have and put them aside during the transfer of information.
I’ve seen current spouses or significant others of each parent work well together or with the ex. However, these are few and far between.
You can choose a friend, pastor, family member, etc. But, whoever you (and possibly your ex) choose, needs to be an adult, act like an adult and eliminate problems rather than contribute to them.
Please share your thoughts in the comment section on this subject. What ways have you found to commune with an ex that has lessened the animosity and did not include using your children? Have your children been placed in the middle like this by your ex? How did it affect them?
Please be respectful in your posts. This is not an opportunity to air grievances. It is an opportunity to help others learn from previous mistakes so maybe their children won’t have to be shanghaied into a parental tug of war.
I wish you all easy and trouble-free communications with your ex and much less stress on your kids.
*NOTE: Here’s my typical disclaimer for these posts–I am not an attorney. These opinions are mine alone and are based on my years of experience working within the family court system. They are not meant as legal advice nor as representative of anyone else’s opinion. If you need legal advice (and I believe if you’re involved in child custody litigation, you really do), please consult with an attorney.