When Kids Choose Custody

Kids Choose CustodyIt’s been a tool of intimidation and means of control ever since divorce, custody, and visitation replaced love, honor, and commitment. It’s the dark fear of some and the angelic hope of others. Fantasized by many; dreaded by many more. It’s that day circled on nearly every divorced parent’s calendar when the law says kids can choose their custody.

Mine have known this day exists for some time.  Enlightened, and occasionally reminded of, by their mother. The date has been marked with near monumental significance. Something to be anticipated and revered. On parallel to that moment when the horizons of a teenagers’ life widen like an open road or when savoring that nectar of adulthood doesn’t get you arrested.  I’ve never seriously feared my children would choose to alter the arrangement forced upon us, but I’d be lying if my heart didn’t quicken at the thought they could.

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There will come a time in most divorced parent’s lives when a child attempts to do that very thing –  exploit the visitation schedule. It may be a passing suggestion, an offhand complaint about all the back and forth, or it can often be more direct, ‘Do I have to go over there this weekend?’  In my experience, this starts around age eleven, when maturity and middle school help kids connect some of the dots. It’s typically a daughter not desiring to go to dad’s house during his weekend, though I’m sure it can be in other forms. As that time nears, the girl may express frustrations about going to her fathers. It may come across first as innuendo. If that doesn’t get the desired outcome, she may act more forceful even saying she doesn’t want to go. Tears may come if she’s genuinely sincere. If all that proves unsuccessful, she may get aggressive – outbursts, screaming, perhaps the extreme of locking herself in her room to control the situation.  It’s a very delicate matter and for many reasons, but especially for its long term effects, since what happens in such moments has direct implications on the future.

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Several years go, not too long after the Queen and I met, her daughter, like many girls, starting pushing back when it was her father’s weekend. Like many second-born kids, she has a natural tendency to exert control. Cut from the same cloth, she and her dad routinely butted heads. For a season they had a love/hate relationship, much of it spent in the latter. She would regularly cry, throw tantrums, cling to her mother as to life, whatever she thought would work to get the Queen to acquiesce.

When many moms might have given in to their daughter’s demands, even perhaps feeling pride and validation at being ‘favorite,’ the Queen, in every instance, argued for her ex-husband. She reinforced the importance of having a dad, that her father was necessary, and he loved her even if it didn’t always seem that way. Sometimes the Queen resorted to demanding her daughter go. As expected the child thundered, ‘It’s not fair!’ ‘He’s mean to me!’, ‘You don’t love me anymore!’ The Queen’s response was consistent, ‘He’s your father, he loves you and you need to spend time with him!’

Often this could be used to criticize an ex-husband, evidence he must be doing something wrong or that he’s a ‘bad dad’. But the Queen never let him know what was happening. She saw no need to build herself up at his expense. Most of all, she supported and appreciated his value as a father, even if he no longer held value as a husband.

Naturally their daughter’s attempts ended. She realized that any efforts to change things would get her nowhere. The stormy season finally passed and a relationship between father and daughter developed into something unimaginable just a few years earlier. Her fourteenth birthday came and went without the slightest thought of changing where or when she spent time with each parent. Her schedule has remained unchanged. In fact, she recently thanked the Queen for making her go all those times she didn’t want to – she was grateful, she told her mom, ‘for not letting me choose.’

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A child will attempt to alter custody arrangements only if she thinks she’ll be successful doing so. But it’s much deeper than that. Save for areas of abuse, which are entirely different matters, if children choose to change the visitation arrangement it’s only when they have the support, and more likely the encouragement, of a parent to do so. Teenagers are rarely so bold otherwise and need a level of assurance that they will be supported in such a situation. A teenage boy will not decide to live with his dad full time unless the father defends and even promotes the decision.

This seems most prevalent when tension, and more precisely animosity and jealousy, remain between former spouses. It makes for fertile soil when co-parents lack the maturity to put aside petty differences and resentments. Any parent who, out of little more than malice, castigates, demoralizes, and condemns the other parent in front of a child, pointing out faults, underscoring disagreements, and highlighting mistakes, creates the necessary atmosphere where that kid may feel emboldened to choose. Such behavior can cause him or her to question the other parent’s intentions, character, and even love. A lack of visible support between co-parents makes it very easy for kids to change custody.

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Last summer, soon after the Queen and I married and moved in together, I asked my ex-wife for more time with my kids. Now that we were in the same home with more opportunities to bond as a new family, the Queen and I felt extra time would help. I asked for one additional night per week; taking the visitation arrangement to precisely 50/50.

Her answer was as selfish as it was insulting – NO! The reasons were as insincere as they were unoriginal – ‘It’s too much back and forth.’, ‘It’s too early.’, ‘You have plenty of time with them now.’ I continued pressing. She suggested we allow the kids to decide. I was apprehensive. What if they didn’t want to change things? Perhaps my ex already knew the answer before the question was asked, making her recommendation seem more accommodating than it actually was. Regardless of my misgivings, I moved forward and doing so made one of my most regrettable parenting mistakes.

It became obvious to our children that she and I would not and could not support each other. We were not a united front. I wanted one thing she wanted another. Asking them to choose meant putting them in middle of our conflict. Since we couldn’t come to a resolution between ourselves, they now had the burden. Finally, but most importantly, they had to choose between the two people they loved more than anyone else in the world. We had placed them between a rock and hard place. They were dropped into the middle of a our crisis and no matter the direction taken they knew they were going to hurt and disappoint one of us.

The entire thing was regrettable and had I to do it over again, I would have immediately stood down at the ex’s suggestion. I would have abandoned my attempt for the extra day by giving up my wants for the sake of my kids so they wouldn’t have to partake in their parent’s disjointed relationship. But my desire to ‘win’ took precedent over common sense and my duty as a father. My reasons for wanting extra time were less sincere and more greedy. I wanted victory. I wanted to level the playing field. I wanted my value as a father to be equal to her value as a mother, and if she wouldn’t give it to me, I would ask my kids to take it from her.

Their answer devastated the Queen and I. Not just because they chose to keep the status quo, but in time I hated they were ever asked to make such a choice. Weeks went by but I eventually apologized for placing them in that position and promised that, while I hoped they might one day reconsider, I would never again ask them to choose between their mother and myself. It’s a promise I intend to keep.

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Perhaps the most challenging aspect of co-parenting is our need to support and encourage someone we may otherwise wish we’d never met. To be effective co-parents mean putting aside individual feelings for something larger than ourselves. To nobly carry a cross we’d rather not have to bear at all.

Divorced parents can’t allow emotion to distract us from responsibility.  While the competitive nature of co-parenting is undeniable, it isn’t a game and is never won if our kids are the ones who lose. The importance of both parents in a child’s life can’t be mere empty talk, one parent’s value isn’t secondary to the other. Victory is never achieved when a child is forced or encouraged to choose. While such a perceived ‘win’ may ease our insecurity and give us a sense of acceptance and even revenge against the other parent, it will always be at the loss of those who are most important.

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