Divided Child Custody A Mistake
Guest Author, Anne Kass, - a retired District Judge of Albuquerque, New Mexico

A couple who had divorced in 1988, came back to my court recently. They had two sons, who in 1988 were 6 and 8 years old. Each parent took custody of one of the children. Dad took the older one, mom the younger. The boys spent weekends together, alternating one with mom, the next with dad.

In 1993, the father came back to court to get custody of the younger boy, now 12. His lawyer said, "The son the father has raised is a polite young man. He goes to school. He does his chores. He's going to be a responsible adult." But, the lawyer claimed, the son the mother has raised skips school, gets into fights, and refuses to do what he's told. "The mother has done a terrible job raising her child," the lawyer insisted.

A neutral counselor met with both boys, did some investigating and reported that both children were failing in school, that the older boy was seriously depressed, and that the younger boy was extremely angry.

As you might expect with both boys having problems, neither parent was exhibiting good parenting skills. The father had threatened and hit the younger boy when he misbehaved. The mother had helped him change from one school to another, each time he got into trouble. Both parents had contributed to their younger son's problems.

As for the older son, because he was quiet and no trouble, neither parent was paying attention to him, and neither recognized that his silence was a sign of severe depression.

The bottom line was that both boys were experiencing serious problems and pain. The older one had turned the pain inward against himself. The younger one had turned it outward, against the world.

Divorcing parents who divide custody of the children are almost always making a serious mistake. One of the most frequent consequences is a form of rivalry and competition between the parents to prove who is the better parent. Rather than being primarily concerned with the children's emotional, physical, and intellectual well-being, each custodial parent sees the other as if they each were contestants in a gardening contest. Typically each parent takes credit for the

children's victories, and each one insists the other is to blame for the children's failures. It is also common for both parents to misinterpret what they see, as this father did when he concluded his quiet son was doing well.

Parenting is not a competitive sport. Cooperation is the key. Some claim that cooperation is an unrealistic expectation of divorced parents. There is no question that cooperation is difficult for divorced parents, but failure to cooperate is guaranteed to hurt the children. Is it unrealistic to expect parents to be able to behave in ways that do not injure their children? I hope not.

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