General Parenting Issues — 26 December 2004
What does “in the best interest of the children” really mean?

The phrase “in the best interest of the children” is often used in divorce proceedings when parents are trying to make important decisions about the new family constellation. However, this consideration must be the primary focus of all parental decisions.

Everyone agrees that what is best for children is a pair of loving parents who are kind and considerate to each other and to their children. Regrettably, not all parents, or parental activities fit this profile. Those who divorce are encouraged to carefully choose what they say and how they act in front of their children. Sometimes, in intact families, the self-monitoring of parental behavior is somewhat lax.

There are several important recommendations (supported by research findings) that are made to divorcing parents to facilitate their children’s adjustment to the loss of the original family.

First, divorcing parents are advised to talk to their children together about the break up, impress upon their children that they are not the source of their parents’ parting and that they will always be loved and cared for by both parents. The parents are encouraged to present the decision as a mutual choice and be open to their children’s questions.

Though this formula is aimed at informing children of an impending divorce, talking to children about important parental decisions or situations should be done in the same manner. Sometimes parents need to tell their children about difficult issues such as: a parent’s loss of employment, the need to relocate due to financial pressures or an illness of a parent or grandparent. Here, too the presentation should be by both adults to reassure the children that the parents are unified, prepared and competent in dealing with the situation. This helps the children be better able to accept the difficult new reality.

Divorcing parents are also advised to abstain from fighting with each other in front of the children. This recommendation certainly also applies to unified couples. Children feel fear, insecurities and powerlessness when their parents argue. Name-calling, accusations, criticism and contempt are toxic to children who feel bewildered and helpless to restore family stability.

Children are helped to develop their sense of security and comfort when their parents act and speak as competent adults. When grown –ups behave as out of control children, the youngsters lose confidence that they will be cared for and supported appropriately. Even infants who hear arguing and fighting will cry in an attempt to draw attention to themselves and distract their parents’ maladaptive patterns. Older children, who witness frequent acrimony at home, may develop school or behavior problems to redirect the parents’ attention from their own conflict to their parenting role.

Divorcing parents are also instructed to avoid representing each other in a bad light. This also applies to all other families. Children often view themselves as “half mom” and “half dad”. When they hear negative comments from Dad about Mom or vice versa, the children internalize these views as part of their own self-image. Their self-esteem plummets with every unfavorable depiction of either parent.

It is incumbent upon parents not only to abstain from negative talk about their spouses, but also to support the other parent even at times of erred behavior. For example, if a father does not keep a commitment to a child, the mother should tell the child that the father’s late arrival must be due to unexpected circumstances, since he loves to spend time with the child. This approach must be employed even in circumstances of repeated transgressions in order to uphold the child’s self-esteem and lovability.

Another recommendation to divorcing spouses is not to confide in children about their own problems. Venting their own frustrations aloud compromises the children’s loyalty to both parents. In divorced families, for example, a mother should not let the children know that dad is late in his child support payments, or would rather spend his money on his new girlfriend. A father should not, for example, criticize the mother’s parenting style. None of these statements should be said to the children, or spoken to others within the children’s earshot. Complaining to a friend on the phone about a spouse’s misbehavior may be helpful, but children must not be able to hear it. It diminishes the parent’s credibility and labels the other parent or the children as victims.

In intact families, information about earning disparity between parents, a parent’s spending habits or any negative attributes, job stresses and family feuds, should be spared from children. Youngsters should be able to concentrate on their schooling, playtime, sports and growing–up with confidence that adult issues are handled well.

Am I suggesting that we shelter our children from certain woes? Absolutely. Maturation is a full time task, which requires energy and concentration. Children have to be free to learn and grow, unencumbered by excessive concerns about which they have no control.

What is within the best interest of ALL children?

•A stable, harmonious environment and attentive parents who model mature behavior.

•Parents, whether they are together or apart, who control their own impulses and consistently place their children’s needs above their own.

•Parents who protect each other’s image in the eyes of the children.
•For parents to always remember that every word and conduct is observed and absorbed by children and impacts their self-worth and security.
•Joint presentation by parents of information impacting children. Parents’ availability for answering questions and reassuring children that their safety and well being is safeguarded.
•Mature behavior by parents that excludes discounting, name-calling, shaming or belittling each other, during arguments.
•Protecting children from knowing about difficult adult circumstances that may needlessly worry them and render them helpless.
•Behavior and language that models for children love, respect and consideration for others.

December 19, 2004

Related Articles

About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

(0) Readers Comments

Comments are closed.