I’m willing to bet the house that no child who sat on Santa’s knee this past Christmas wished for mommy and daddy to split up and live in separate houses. And I don’t need a scientific survey to back that up.
It’s not complicated, folks. Unless family life is literally a living hell (most marriages are low-conflict), kids simply don’t wish to be part of a broken family. And they don’t want to travel back and forth between homes. Or negotiate for attention with stepmoms and stepdads, stepbrothers and stepsisters, boyfriends and girlfriends. Somehow I don’t think that’s what the little girl in AT&T’s “more is better” commercial had in mind either.
Every year, however, approximately one million kids get what they don’t wish for. Each year more couples file for divorce in January than in any other month, too, playing Santa on Christmas and pulling the plug on New Year’s. It was hard enough when my ex left right before Christmas. Do other parents really think they’re sparing their children by waiting until after the holidays? Giving children one last moment of innocence and the next showing them the limits of just how far Santa is willing to go when it comes to Santa’s happiness versus theirs? If there’s a teachable moment in bombarding kids with a banquet of new electronics, sports paraphernalia, dolls and gadgets in one moment and rendering the family obsolete in the next, I’m missing it.
It’s mind-boggling to me, too, when proponents of shared parenting say that equal visitation time is fair because it gives children a voice, thereby serving their best interests. Let’s not delude ourselves. Forcing divorce down our children’s throats, splitting them in two and doling out their parts equally between mom and dad has nothing to do with what kids really want. I don’t doubt some shared parenting advocates (and parents) have their hearts in the right place. It’s true there’s rampant injustice in our family courts. Undoubtedly some parents get the shaft when it comes to spending time with their children post-divorce. But it’s the children of divorce who are the primary and most consistently ignored group of victims in America.
And if divorce professionals and parents truly wanted to honor the best interests of children, those wishes could drive down the number of family courts, matrimonial attorneys and divorces. More people and more resources would support efforts to help spouses solve their marital discord and hold their families together. Communities would unite to help shore up families. And state legislators across the nation would begin counteracting the tremendous damage of no-fault divorce by enacting divorce reform legislation.
A few weeks ago I conducted a small non-scientific Internet survey of articles and blogs on the topic of what children want most. The most prevalent answers boiled down to this – children want to be loved and valued, to know that they’re special, and to spend time with their parents. There’s no better way to accomplish that than for parents to make every effort to repair their marriages and keep their families together. Research shows that marriage is far and away the gold standard when it comes to the welfare of children on every significant level of well-being. Children of divorce, on the other hand, face a host of difficulties, including dying on average five years earlier than their peers from intact families. And no amount of shared parenting, mediated divorces or improvement in co-parenting skills can ever compensate for those losses.
So here’s my advice to parents in 2014, whether you’re separated or still together but contemplating divorce. Don’t listen to your lawyers or your therapists (unless they’re of the pro-marriage variety). Don’t listen to friends who tell you to split either. Listen to your kids instead.
That doesn’t mean putting them on the spot, of course, merely so they can validate what you want to hear. Kids want you to be happy, and that means they’re also eager to please. But put yourself in their place and listen to their hearts; that will tell you all you need to know.
And if you still have doubts about trying to save your marriage get your hands on every book and article you can about the effects of divorce on children. Find a marriage-friendly therapist and turn that next stone. Rent a copy of The Parent Trap and watch it with your kids. It’s no mystery why that movie was so popular.
But my situation is different, you say. No it’s not. Not unless you’re among the minority of marriages with high conflict or physical abuse. You’re just like everybody else — you want to be happy, your spouse wants to be happy, and your children want to be happy. And the best way to make that happen is to save your marriage and your family from divorce if you can.
It’s true that saving your marriage may depend on getting your own spouse on-board, too, especially if you want in and he or she wants out.
Still, it all begins with a wish.