I just came upon this great opinion piece in the Times by Ruth Bettelheim, a marriage and family therapist who argues that children as young as 7 years old should have more of a say in their custody and visitation arrangements post-divorce. Regular readers know I’ve been divorced since my daughter was 3 (a year before I started writing here at Babble), but I’ve been pretty mum about the sorts of goings on I’ve experienced in Family Court trying to come up with a co-parenting arrangement that makes sense for my daughter.
My daughter’s father lives quite far away, and even though she’s only 6, she’s expressed multiple times what a burden traveling to see her dad is. Yet when her father and I finally settled on a travel arrangement a few months ago, my daughter was given no say in the matter by the court, nor was she appointed a child advocate lawyer. Bettelheim argues, “Rendering children voiceless and powerless to meet their own changing needs, or burdening them with guilt if they try to do so, is in no one’s best interest. It either creates hardship for children who grin and bear it or instigates a string of provocative and damaging behaviors in those who embark on increasingly desperate attempts to make someone notice that something is wrong.” I couldn’t agree more.
Once children have reached the age of reason — generally agreed to be about 7 — they should be recognized as the ultimate experts on their own lives. We all resent it when others say that they know better than we do how we feel and what is good for us. Nevertheless, we subject children to this when we call in experts to evaluate their lives over a period of days or weeks, as part of the custody process, instead of just listening to them.
Bettelheim further suggests that “all parenting plans should be subjected to mandatory binding review every two years. The review should include a forum for children to speak privately with a mediation-trained lawyer.” That makes good sense to me. It seems entirely unfair in custody hearings that a room full of adults – including one very powerful one who has never and will never meet the child in question – can make decisions for the child without his or her input. I’m all for my daughter having an in-person relationship with her dad, but not one that taxes her beyond reason. In our situation, my daughter has expressed to me and her dad that she wishes he would travel to her more, but who knows how old she’ll be before she’ll get to express that opinion to someone who can actually make her opinion matter.