Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) UK

- promoting responsible shared parenting after separation and divorce -

The best interests of the child

A discussion between :

Hon. Donald B King - Judge of the Superior Court, San Francisco County.


Dr Judith Wallerstein - Executive Director of the Centre for the Family in Transition.

Transcript of a video made in March 1981 by: The California Centre for Judicial Education and Research. Summary

[The views expressed are those of the speakers; not necessarily those of the Judicial Council of California, the California Judges Association, or the California Centre for Judicial Education and Research].


King: I'm the domestic relations judge for my court. I want you to know that other judges who do this sort of work agree with me that the worst way to resolve any dispute that parents have about custody or visitation with their children is our adversary courtroom system. That system tends to focus on what is bad about each parent, or contended to be bad about each parent, and what we're concerned about is what is in the best interests of the child, and what the parents can do to themselves reach agreement as to their dispute, as we know that is clearly best for the children.

In the next few weeks you will have the opportunity to meet with a family counsellor, not to tell you what you should do, not to tell you what's best for your children, but to help you reach agreement with each other about what is best for your children.

Now judges are concerned about you, but we are really concerned about what's best for the children and so our determinations if we must make them, and your determinations are not based on what's fair or unfair to either of you, but what is in the best interests of your child. We are fortunate today to give you the opportunity to listen to Dr Judith Wallerstein for a few moments. Most of the information we possess about what the effects of divorce are on children comes from research Dr Wallerstein has conducted, and perhaps it might be worthwhile just to spend a moment briefly describing what that research has been.

Wallerstein: In order to really understand how children respond to their parent's divorce, you have to look at them not only at the time of the divorce but also later down the road, and in the children that we followed we spoke with them at some length over a six week period at the time of the divorce. We talked to their parents. We saw them again three years later and then we brought them all back again, the children and the parents. The children aged 3 to 18 at the time of the divorce. We brought them all back again five years later to really find out what was going on, and we learnt a great deal that we hadn't known before.

How children feel

King: How did children feel at the time of their parent's divorce ?

Wallerstein: Well you know, my hunch is that if parents knew how their children felt at the time of the divorce they would change their behaviour very much and they would act very differently and think very differently. I guess what's most striking about how children and adolescents feel at the time the parents decide to separate and file for divorce is they're very worried about what is going to happen to them.

In this society the family serves a very protective function and the children feel that that protection that they've had, that scaffolding, that structure that supports their growing up years is in some way become unstable and isn't going to hold and they're very worried about what's going to happen to them.

Worry about themselves

The little ones, my colleagues and I were surprised to learn, worry about whether they will be fed and who is going to take care of them and whether they're going to have a house over their heads. And the older youngsters worry very much about whether they'll have an opportunity to go to college, and what's going to happen.

Worry about their parents

A second considerable worry to the children is about their parents. This also surprises parents very much because its somehow hard for grownups to think of children as very worried about them. But our children were very worried about fathers who left the house. What had happened to them, they were concerned about who was feeding daddy, did daddy have a place to sleep ? And as a matter of fact we discovered when the children's first visit to the father's new place of residence - or the mother's new place of residence, depending who had left the household as if they had consulted together they all went to look at the bedroom, to look at the bed, and they all went to the refrigerator, they opened it to see if there was enough food in the refrigerator. They were worried about where daddy was, they didn't quite understand. There was one little six year old who was told that his father was in Oakland. And he went around for weeks saying "Where is Oakland ?", and "Is Oakland in Mexico ?" and "Where is Mexico ?". And so the children really had some sense of the father having vanished - or whoever left, the mother having vanished, whoever left the household, and being very concerned about whether the remaining parent would be able to manage.

I guess the central concern of the children was "What's going to happen to me ?" and "What's going to happen to my parents ?", and they were very frightened.

What parents need to understand

King: We know from our own observations, of course you know from your study that some children do very poorly after their parent's divorce. Other children seemed to do very well. What makes the difference as to whether a child is going to do well or do poorly?

Wallerstein: I guess that's the most important question. Really what makes the difference because that's really what parents want to know. I don't know any parent who isn't really concerned about his or her child at the time of the divorce, but I also don't know any parent who isn't also concerned about his or her own problems at that time. And it's very difficult for parents to face all the questions they have, the economic concerns, their anger at each other, their disappointments in the marriage, the dashed hopes that were attached to that marriage and also to think about what would be helpful and useful to their children.

Nevertheless I guess this is something they have to know because the most important decisions that are being made for the children, that will affect their future, are made right at the time of the divorce, when the stress on the parents is the highest. I guess that's one of the prices of being a parent. It's just not easy at any point and especially in a crisis.

The need to stop fighting

What helps children first of all, and is in the best interests of the children, is if the parents can stop fighting. That seems like an easy prescription; its very hard for many people, and as a matter of fact what's striking is that if people are unable to come to some kinds of terms with the divorce and the unhappiness of the divorce and their anger about it, early on, then it can last for a long time, and I've seen a number of adults both in and out of the courts, as I know you have, where the anger has gone on for five and for six years, and when you talk to these people it's almost as if it was yesterday. The anger is green or hot and just as it always was.

So the first thing that helps children is if people are able to make use of the divorce to settle their feelings about each other and to really resolve the issues that brought them to divorce and to sort of close the door on the issues that were hot and angry and unhappy at the time of the marriage and to regard the divorce really as a second chance, not as just a chance to go on fighting.

King: And that's an area where the mediator should be able to help them. That's part of this process.

Wallerstein: Yes, that's where this whole opportunity for parents in California is an important, an exciting, and really a revolutionary step forward in terms of the society or the state or the community saying to parents "Let's really have a chance to settle these differences on behalf of yourselves and your own future as well as on behalf of the children."

The need for a continued relationship

King: What else was there that you found that enables kids to do well or causes them to do poorly as a result of the divorce ?

Wallerstein: We found very strongly, and this also came as a surprise to many of the judges, and to many of the legislators, and many people in the community; is that it's very important for a child to have a continued relationship with both divorced parents. With the parent they continued to live with, and with the parent who visits. And that even when the visits with the parent who visits the home or visits the children was not a parent they had a close relationship with during the marriage; that for that parent and for that child, the divorce is a second chance.

And sometimes children and adults who really didn't get along that well during the marriage, are able to make use of this second chance to really do a lot better and to get to have a much more loving and closer and more intimate relationship in the divorced family than they did during the married family.

Children who had a relationship with the parent, where the parent child relationship is disrupted where father doesn't maintain contact with the child, often suffer very much in the post divorce years, and often these are the children who really don't recover the momentum that they lost at the time of the divorce and don't do well and appear unhappy and even depressed children in the years following the divorce.

King: What do you mean when you use the term 'doing well' ?

Wallerstein: I mean things that people are really concerned about. I mean that the children who weren't doing well after the divorce, weren't learning well at school. They weren't doing well with friends. Some of them were getting into trouble with a range of minor or more serious delinquencies. That they weren't happy children. That some of these kids sat around waiting for their daddy to appear and spent their whole life waiting for their daddy to appear, or at least they lost a lot of the years of their childhood.

Whereas the children who did well, where the parents were able to come together on their behalf, showed sometimes a special bonus. An extra measure of understanding, of compassion or empathy, sympathy for other people. So that it matters very much, the difference between doing well and doing poorly gets bigger as time goes on.

How parents can help

King: Well we find that some parents tend to think that once the divorce occurs that changes the relationship that each of them have with their child, and that's the worst thing that can happen is to have that relationship change any more than has to happen because now parents may be living in two separate homes instead of just one.

At the time of the divorce how can parents be the most helpful to their children ?

Wallerstein: Well a lot depends on how they act and a lot depends on what they tell the child. I'll take on both of those separately because this is really important and I really think parents should know this.

Rational behaviour

The child needs to think of his parents as rational, as reasonable, as having taken this act, this decision to divorce in a careful and thoughtful way. And to think of his parents as people whom he can really emulate and admire. That they made a mistake about the marriage, but that they are dealing with their mistakes in an adult and mature way. That they're putting aside their angers, and that they are seriously concerned about what happens to their children. That's hard for grownups to do, its hard for us always to be at our best, but it's most useful to the children if the parents can behave and look to their children as people who are thinking and behaving reasonably and who are sorry that the marriage didn't work out, and are able to say so to the child.

What a child needs to hear

What the child needs to hear from the parents is a lot of things and maybe I should list them:

What the child needs to hear first of all is what's going to happen in the future. Because they're so worried about what's going to happen. The child needs to know where they're going to live, who's going to take care of him, that the parent - child relationship isn't divorcing. It's the parents who are divorcing each other.

The child needs to know where each of the parents is going to be, and what's going to happen in the immediate future.

The child doesn't need to be told any sugar coated fairy tales about everything in the future is going to be just wonderful from here on out. It's much more helpful to say to the child "Look for the next couple of months, for the next year, things are going to be pretty chaotic around here. But we're trying to put together a really good post-divorce family. We're trying to make things better - that's the point of divorce - to make things better".

The child needs to be told clearly that he or she is going to be taken care of, and that he or she won't be forgotten. Children are terribly afraid they're going to be forgotten, especially when they see their parents going at each other hammer and tongs. They're terribly afraid that no-one is going to listen to them.

Children need some moments of intimacy and quiet with the parents, with both parents separately at the time of the divorce.

They need special care when they're being put to bed. A lot of parents would avoid a lot of the problems they're having at bedtime with the children, if they could put a little bit of extra time at the time of the crisis (the divorce) with the child.

What a child needs to know

They need to know when daddy is coming, or when mummy is coming if mummy is visiting, because otherwise the visiting parent appears like a jack in the box, and the kids never know when he or she is going to come again, and they figure that "Maybe this is going to be the last time I see them". So they need to have some sense when they're going back and forth between mother and father, that it's not a no-man's land or no-child land where its dangerous to cross, and they need to feel that they know when daddy or mummy is visiting so that they won't feel that maybe this is the last time; that I'd better be good, or I'd better behave or daddy or mummy won't come again.

They also need to understand in ways that are appropriate to the age of the child, why the parents divorced. They don't need to know details, but they need to know and they need to be told that the parents loved each other, they thought it would be a good marriage, they hoped it would work out, and they have discovered they made a mistake and they're sorry, and they're going to try to do better from here on out by themselves and by the children.

Support for the other parent

King: How important is it for the parents to be supportive of the child's relationship with the other parent ?

Wallerstein: It's very important. Because sometimes the child feels that he or she is betraying the one parent if he or she loves the other parent, and that puts the child in a great quandary and a great conflict. The child really needs to be told, I know this is very hard for parents to do when they're unhappy with each other and angry and caught up in their own concerns. I really appreciate that, but nevertheless I think parents do a lot for children when they realise its important, and what a parent needs to be able to tell the child is "Because I and your father don't get along, it does not mean that you can't get along with your father, because he is your father although he is no longer going to be my husband". And this kind of loving permission from a mother to a child, or from a father to a child, will probably build more mental health in that child than any single thing that that parent can do.

King: Well, then you'd agree that the parents who we see occasionally who come in and say they don't want their child to have contact with the other parent are really doing a disservice to their child.

Reduction of conflict

Wallerstein: Yes, and I want to say that I'm profoundly sympathetic to their feelings. Parents are people and parents have feelings and I guess what we're saying to parents at this time is that if you can create a conflict-free zone sort of a miniature de-militarised zone between you in which you don't fight, that you will in the end be very happy about it because we've also found that when parents try to involve children on their side against the other parent that this more often boomerangs than not and that two or three years down the road the child will remember that with anger at the parent whom he originally allied with against the other parent.

King: Well Dr Wallerstein, on behalf of the parents who have been listening to us, I want to thank you for the message you've given, and I'm sure with the information ladies and gentlemen, that Dr Wallerstein has given to you and the assistance you're going to get from a skilled and experienced family counsellor assisting you to mediate your disputes about custody or visitation that you will find that you will be able to reach an agreement as to what is in the best interest of not only yourselves as parents, but more importantly the best interests of your children.

Transcript and subheadings by David Cannon

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