Sunday, January 18, 2009

Compassion

A student is in trouble and he is suspended from school. A teacher marches into my staff and declares:

"I wish parents would think about what they´re doing when they break up their families. The children are really suffering."

I beg to differ! Not all children in divided families are in trouble. Now we know that there are some family situations within which it is not a suitable environment to raise children. We will only see children grow to become adults who believe that typical family patterns include violence and threats towards women.

In the 1990´s we realize that the definition of "family" changed. We can no longer value a family according to the number of members within it. Two adults living together constitute a family just as much as one adult and one or two children. We can no longer afford to label a home as "broken" if it has split and divided. Think of the message that you are giving a child. His/her home and family life doesn´t have any value because it does not include a mother and a father. A child cannot control the kind of family that they live in, or family circumstances. Often a family becomes divided because it was broken in the first place and could not be fixed: many, many children suffer physical, emotional or sexual abuse and the law says that they should not be allowed to remain in such a dangerous family situation. Still others become divided through no fault of their own: accident or illness. We must not label or diminish the self-respect of the members of these families.

Marriage is a difficult proposition at best. So is parenting. Many families are facing separation or divorce in this country. It is a momentous decision, one not entered into lightly. It is one which will affect the social, emotional and physical well-being of an entire family. Women leaving a marriage face anywhere from a 20 to 73% reduction in their standard of living. Men face an increased standard of living anywhere from 7 to 42%. Nothing in my past had prepared me for dealing with living on my own and being responsible as a sole-support mother. In the end, the reports and stories I´ve read about other women facing these situations, with insecure jobs and fragile incomes, enabled me to face the reality of my life and the resources available to me in my situation.

I am a teacher, with training in psychology, parenting and sociology and I am fortunate to have found colleagues who can empathize and sympathize and provide guidance to me. They also provide support for troubled children seeking to come to an understanding of their new family situation. In fact, these children may be in trouble before a family reforms. Our children must not be given the message that they now exist in a "broken" family. They must be encouraged to get help and take control of their emotional lives and to deal with the circumstances of their new family situation. They must learn to communicate their needs to their families: quality time with both parents, a relief from arguments and adult confrontations, other students in like circumstances to share or compare problems with and perhaps a counselor to talk to from time to time.

Children, too, are often angry. They have to come to terms with having less money, less parenting time, new limits, new roles, and a new physical space. They must learn not to take out their anger on peers and teachers. It is at this time that their parents are reorganizing their lives. Children are often feeling helpless and frustrated. Sometimes this comes out in their behaviour. We still carry these myths of “happily ever after” and the perfect lives we should be living. It is not reality for many families.

I´ve met many kids in my classroom facing family division. Fortunately, times are changing and there are helpful professionals out there who are committed to making a difference in our modern society. There is a movement underway to reshape family lifestyles and to help families in crisis, not to blame or label them dysfunctional. Part of this movement includes a new vocabulary that redefines families: new terms mediators are now using to help children and parents in their struggle for their resolution of problems. Many parents are entering into "joint custody" arrangements. This means that both parents are in on the major decisions regarding their children. Both parents want to be involved in their child´s schooling, extra-curricular activities and daily lives. Joint custody is still possible whether the parents have physical custody or not. The parent with physical custody is simply the one who does the daily parenting of the children. Our family went to a family mediator who taught us to look differently at our new lives and to help us come to a decision regarding regular access and custody.

I have heard of a number of families who have opted for joint physical custody. That is, their children spend equal amounts of time on a monthly or weekly basis, with both parents. As an educator I have seen how this can be a confusing and difficult time for children as they seek to establish territory in both homes. The school, in turn, never knows which parent to communicate with. Teachers have to meet separately with parents who refuse to hold joint parent/teacher interviews. It is a difficult and frustrating time for such all those involved. All parties must learn to work cooperatively to ensure success.

When a family divides each parent will have one home and one family. The new wave of supportive mediators and lawyers are recognizing that the child now has two homes and two families. They must feel welcome in both parent´s homes with a place for their own things. Research has shown that children from split or divided homes do best when they feel loved and wanted within both families. They function best in their new lives in homes where parents can keep their anger and disagreements independent of their relationship with their children. This is sometimes easier said than done!

There is a strong movement of father seeking custody of their children. This, I believe, has been the result of many angry parents who take out their frustrations with their ex-spouses on the children. They deny the non-custodial parent equal time and the opportunity to develop and maintain a loving relationship with their children. There are many families, on the other hand, who have managed to put recriminations aside and seek out the best arrangements for their children; regular access, joint custody and the chance to take part in their children´s school and social lives. In Britain families are being directed towards divorce counseling sessions which seek to have parents come to an understanding of what is best for the children and to put hostilities aside.

The stress doesn´t end there for many families. Often the non-custodial parent has a different parenting style. They may try to make up for lost time by permitting the child to stay up past an appropriate bedtime or by indulging their inappropriate behaviour. Sometimes the other parent may be ignorant of the harm they do by not setting reasonable limits and not enforcing a time for homework or other responsibilities such as chores. They want to appear to be the beneficent parent and may come across as recreation director at the expense of regular routines and reasonable discipline strategies.

Teachers, especially at the early elementary level, often are parent educators. They make phone calls to help parents learn to set limits. They send home newsletters which explain how regular bedtimes, balanced meals and consistent expectations help a child understand the framework of their lives. In many cases the non-custodial parent has not benefited from this information. We may need to re-educate and remind them of the importance of regular routines, even though they spend a limited amount of time with their children. We know that a child functions best with clear rules and consistent limits.

I believe the difficulty arises from the breakdown of the marriage and the breakdown of the relationship. Both parties may have anger and a lot of emotional baggage that they bring to this process. In this situation they cannot possibly have a vision of what their new lives, new homes, new financial arrangements could and should be.

If both parties cannot leave behind the anger and guilt then it is the children who are the losers. In a perfect society the judicial system should rule on what is best for a divided family. How is a judge to judge the parenting skills of parents? They can only judge by the behaviour and actions of the many. While many men are becoming more involved in their child´s lives, many have a history of uninvolvement. If judges and independent assessors have the time, and the parents have the money, then there are dedicated professionals who will decide which parent is the best primary caregiver for the children. This is not a quick nor inexpensive process. Many families spend an incredible amount of money in this battle for their children. Many parents are unprepared to keep their children´s interests at heart. The best custody arrangements arise when spouses can put aside differences and work out reasonable parenting arrangements.

The good news is that there are families who have figured out how to leave behind their stress and their emotional baggage, negotiate a fair division of family assets, parenting rights, access and physical and social custody.

I found a 5-part YouTube video:How To Divorce & Not Wreck the Kids.The first show sets up the premise, subsequent shows carry more impact as they provide more data and information on three levels of legal agreements: collaborative divorce lawyers, mediators and do-it-yourself kits. There is no question that the conflict embedded in crafting a seperation agreement and a divorce, results in damage to the children's psyche's that have lasting impact on their ability to become contributing members of society. It is possible to come through this maze, with help from professionals and support from organizations. The videos provide feedback from the children as these families try to co-parent.

Concerns range from financial ones, to the equity in the family home, equity in terms of child support, alimony and other issues such as parenting rules, rights and obligations. But, most importantly, it is the business of raising the children that is the most vital job divided families must face. It has to remain in the forefront.

I hope that our adversarial system can and will come up with fair settlements for all of our children. It is essential that individual judges and assessors examine individual family patterns, find strategies to ensure maximum access with minimum stress and therefore provide a consistent framework for the complex parenting process.

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