When couples come to me for mediation, one of the most difficult subjects for discussion is working out a parenting plan, which used to be called “visitation”. Parents don’t usually like to think that they are “visiting” their kids so the word “visitation” is discouraged. They are spending parental time with their children and, hopefully, that parental time is also “quality” time.
For many parents, who do not live with their children on a day to day basis, the proverbial “every other weekend and dinner at McDonalds on Wednesdays” is not enough. For most parents, “quality time” means, living life that includes regular life activities like helping kids with their homework, getting them up and ready for school, taking them to their extracurricular activities, and just “being a parent”.
When I help couples work out parenting plans during Mediation and Collaborative cases, I always suggest that they include a requirement that they review the plan every two or three years. This way each revised plan addresses their growing children’s changing needs. After all, what works for a 5 year old, probably will not work for an 8 year old. Certainly, the very effective plan devised for an 8 year old, almost certainly will not work so well for a 12 year old, and so on.
In the Child and Marriage Therapist Ruth Bettelheim’s interesting column in the New York Times published on May 20th, she questions: “…whose needs count for more, those of parents or those of children?” She argues that the way parents develop and maintain schedules often are more for their own convenience, than in the best interests of the children. To address that issue, she argues that once children have reached the “age of reason”, which she claims is generally agreed to be about 7 years old, they should be “…recognized as the ultimate experts on their own lives…” . She also noted, firmly, that parents should be required to review parenting plans every two years. As a part of the bi-annual review, the children should have a chance to speak privately with a mediation-trained lawyer so to state their preferences, if they choose to. She added that “When they speak up, their wishes should be honored as stated”.
Ms, Bettelheim argues that it is unlikely that children can be manipulated or bribed to choose in a particular way. She insists that children have clear understandings of their own needs.
Although not everyone agrees with all of her arguments, many divorce professionals can agree that children should be consulted. The children’s voices’ should be heard and seriously considered each time parenting plans are devised or revised.
This may be challenging in some families.
However, from the children’s view, it seems to give them a voice in their own lives, which, for many, can help them learn to make life decisions incrementally. Learning to have some control over their own lives may help them in the future.
The following is a link to the column.