A SENSIBLE APPROACH TO CHILD CUSTODY DISPUTES
BECOME LESS ADVERSARIAL
As soon as the divorce process begins, at the very time when each parents self-esteem
is at its nadir, the question is asked, which one is the best parent to take full
responsibility for raising these children? Its hard to imagine a more untimely question
yet this one raises its ugly head in almost every divorce. A lit match thrown in a room of
Posing the question "who is the best parent?" generates more ill-will, anger
and blood-letting than almost any other aspect of a divorce. We continue to ask this
question, notwithstanding its ugly consequences, as though it is simply a necessary
element of divorce. It's not. We have inherited this question from our traditions and this
is one tradition that's worn out its welcome.
Most child psychologists would agree that each parent contributes in unique ways to the
development of the child. There is no "best parent" in most cases. While certainly there are
instances where one parent is abusive or fundamentally lacking in basic skills such as to
eliminate that parent as a genuine parenting figure, however, most cases involve two
relatively good and loving, though imperfect, parents.
By posing the "best parent" question we are essentially setting the stage for
an unnecessary and destructive battle. At the time of divorce each parent needs love from
all available sources and each will undoubtedly seek to preserve the love of their own
offspring. When faced with the prospect of "winner take all", considering the
fragile emotions of the parents, its no wonder that each fights as if for their very life,
because in one sense they literally are fighting for their emotional life.
Objectively, children will almost always have pros and cons from living with either
parent. The pros and cons will almost always differ depending on which parent we are
looking at. Furthermore, there is really no question that the needs of children vary
dramatically depending on their age. The pros and cons of each parent may be better suited
for children of different ages.
Focusing on being a better parent rather than the "best parent" will serve
you and your children well. The "best parent" question is the wrong question and
it almost always produces the worst result -- a custody battle. Explore creative
alternatives to something other than a battle. Recall the wisdom in the old saying,
"there is no honor in being superior to another person, the only honor is in being
superior to your former self."
BECOME BETTER PARENTS
Regardless of a court ruling, most parents can have much greater positive impact on
their children's lives than they realize. While you can not control what the court may do,
you can always control your reaction to it. You can not control what your ex-spouse may
do, but you can always control your reaction to them. You can not control all the events
in your life, but you can always control your reaction to them. Or, as Dr. James Papen
counsels, "What you do about what they do is more important than what they do."
This is not to suggest a pollyanna approach to difficulties or to minimize the pain of
separation but, paradoxically, once you accept the difficulty it becomes much less
difficult. You cannot get beyond that which you cannot accept. The social and
psychological impact you can have as a parent can transcend the limitations of court
orders which are necessarily temporary in duration.
Effective parenting during and after divorce can be achieved by appreciating these
dynamics and by implementing an elegantly simple admonition: DEFINE YOUR PRIMARY OBJECTIVE
AS A PARENT.
Few people would engage in business or other ventures without defining their primary
objective yet millions of parents engage in the most challenging task humans face without
ever specifically defining a parenting objective beyond fuzzy wishes that their children
"be happy," "have a better life than I did," or some other nice but
general wish that provides little or no heuristic value.
The primary objective of each parent should be: TO NURTURE A SENSE OF HIGH SELF-ESTEEM
IN MY CHILDREN WHILE TEACHING VALUES, CONSEQUENCES AND RESPONSIBILITY.
With such a defined primary parenting objective the task of parenting becomes more
manageable and in a divorce setting provides invaluable guidance for your behavior.
Following are five keys for achieving this objective, dispensing with an explanation of
all the sound psychological and scientific underpinnings which make this recommended
parenting objective the most logical choice.
KEY NUMBER 1:
GIVE YOUR CHILDREN UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
This means that it's OK for them to love the other parent, or even to want to spend
time with the other parent. Your love must not be contingent on any behavior of the child.
It is critical that your children understand that you love them "no matter
what." Express this to your children. Parents too often assume that children know
that parents love them. Don't assume. Tell them. Tell them often.
Always distinguish your disapproval of a child's behavior from your unconditional love
for them as a worthwhile person. Tell them that you are disappointed with a particular
behavior while showing them that you love them "no matter what". You may find it
effective to tell your children that you are surprised that someone as smart as they are,
as good as they are, and as wonderful as they are, would have such uncharacteristic
Unconditional love provides a solid anchor for the children which contributes to high
KEY NUMBER 2:
GIVE YOUR CHILDREN LOVING PHYSICAL CONTACT
Hug therapy should not be underestimated. According to psychologists, children need at
least fourteen hugs a day for healthy growth. The examples and scientific evidence
supporting the tremendous emotional and physical benefits from loving hugs is nothing
short of remarkable.
The importance of this key is only underscored when custody periods make contact
KEY NUMBER 3:
GIVE YOUR CHILDREN LOVING EYE CONTACT
Take the time to look your children right in the eye when you tell them how much you
love them and how important they are. Too often we preserve eye contact for disciplinary
moments -- "look at me when I'm talking to you!" This is because we
instinctively know that if you want to drive a message home to someone, you look them in
the eye while delivering the message. Deliver positive loving messages to your children by
looking them in the eye.
The importance of this key is only underscored when custody periods make contact
KEY NUMBER 4:
GIVE YOUR CHILDREN LOVING EARS
Enhance your child's self-esteem by listening to them. Take the time to listen to what
they are saying without assuming that you already know what they are trying to tell you.
Respect and honor them as people with legitimate concerns and important ideas. Let them
direct the discussion. Resist the parental urge to control. Treating your children as
worthy individuals teaches in the most powerful way that they are valuable and can make an
important contribution. After all, if their all-wise parents listen to them they must be
KEY NUMBER 5:
DEVELOP YOUR OWN SENSE OF SELF-ESTEEM INDEPENDENT OF YOUR CHILDREN
This may well be the most important of the five keys because you can only love someone
else to the extent you love yourself. When you feel confident of your own sense of worth
not only will your children learn from your positive example but you will not need to
compete with an ex-spouse for the children's love in order to create a false sense of self
worth. Developing your sense of self-esteem means doing things for yourself. Take classes
that interest you. Exercise. Buy something for yourself.
It is not negatively selfish to take this course of action. Note the following analogy
of the airline instructions. When the flight attendant gives instructions regarding the
oxygen mask that will drop down in the event of an emergency, what are people travelling
with small children told to do? Put their masks on first, then assist the children. Is
this a selfish approach? Of course not, because if the adult is not in a position to help
the children then all are at greater risk. The same applies in parenting.
As you become more self-confident in your inherent worth as a human being you pass that
on to your children. Self-worth is contagious. You avoid unnecessary conflict with your
ex-spouse, and many petty battles are avoided because the prize of such contests no longer
interests you. You are free to truly take action which promotes your children's best
Choose carefully the words you choose to talk to your children and for your own
self-talk. These words affect one as much or more than the foods we eat. Ask yourself if
your behavior is truly designed to enhance your child's self-esteem. If your find yourself
tempted to engage in conflict behavior with our ex-spouse, ask yourself if it is going to
be harmful to the children's self-esteem and if so is it really what you want to do.
An airline is often blown off course by unexpected weather patterns, but because it has
a defined objective or destination, the pilot can make the necessary adjustments to
correct the flight path and get back on target. Undoubtedly, "unexpected weather
patterns" will occur in your parenting journey -- particularly in a divorce setting
-- but with the primary objective of "nurturing a sense of high self-esteem in your
children" you will be able to make the necessary adjustments and fly with purpose,
effectively. Enjoy the challenge.
MAKE A LASTING CONTRIBUTION TO A BETTER WORLD
The more good things that happen to your ex-spouse, the better off you will be and the
better off your children will be. To the extent divorcing parties seek win/win solutions
the better off all will be. Unfortunately, most divorcing parties view the divorce
conflict as a divorce contest and each attempts to "win" at the expense of the
From a global perspective we are gaining a much greater understanding of how
interconnected we are all on our little spaceship Earth. We now better appreciate that
events in a distant part of the world affect us in ways we didn't historically understand.
Crop failures in a far away country affect our prices at the local grocery store. Disease
in another country can quickly spread to our neighborhood, etc., etc.
Certainly, if distant events can directly affect us it should come as no surprise that
what happens to those much closer to us can have a direct and profound impact on us. Our
behavior toward those around us eventually comes back to us. The old expression "what
goes around comes around" may very well experience scientific corroboration in the
future. What is certain now, however, is that treating an ex-spouse in the manner in which
you wish to be treated by them will redound to your benefit and your children's benefit.
Provided as a public service by:
William J. Leininger, PC
Attorney at Law
34 Dumont Ave.
Staten Island, New York