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. 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.