How Much Should A Child Know?
Children suffer the most when the two people, they love and trust the most in their young lives, make the painful decision to divorce. If both parents have done the right thing, and kept the children away from the tension and drama, it is possible that the children will survive without feeling blame or abandonment by one or both parents.
But if it is necessary for a child to know about details of a divorce process, how much should the child be told, and is it really going to be necessary? Should the priority for the child be making sure that the child is assured that both parents will forever remain their parents. After all, stereotypes of divorces, usually end up pitting one parent against another, basically forcing a child to choose a side, one parent or the other, which as the child gets older, will realize that they were just being manipulated, which will have a higher chance of resentment towards the parent who felt victorious in the child’s early favor.
It is common for one spouse to lash out at the other spouse. It is natural for there to be anger. But as the process begins, and often escalates, so do emotions, and for many, the need to “hurt” the other spouse, usually emotionally. And the easiest way to “hurt” the other spouse, is to force the divorce issues on the children, as if to make the child a part of the divorce process. The fact is, a divorce is between two spouses, not the children.
Early in the process, one parent may feel the need to inform the children of their hurt, and may try to influence the hurt even further by telling the children about pending events, true or untrue, such as a “boogy man” delivering divorce papers to the house, when in today’s times, rarely happens anymore as the papers are usually served now through regular mail.
But it is after judgments are issued, that there are tendencies to sway the children one way or another. A parent who may not have received the judgment that they had been promised by an attorney, may release their frustration by displaying their hurt to the children, so as to receive empathy and sympathy for the less than favorable award.
But perhaps the ultimate manipulation of a child, is using a child to get a parent to comply with a court order. In most states, there are procedures to deal with a parent who is delinquent on support payments, sometime referred to as “deadbeats”. And this applies to either mothers or fathers. But the term “deadbeat” is meant to reflect the parent who intentionally ignores a court ordered support award, not someone who is unable to pay the award for any particular period for reasons such as illness or employment issues. But the system does not differentiate or discriminate between those who intentionally disobey the law, and those who simply are temporarily unable to meet the demand.
There are various levels of consequences intended to force both situations to comply. Clearly, the one who is intentionally violating the court, may all of a sudden by miracle, comply with the court order. This usually does not happen until the arrears are several months behind, or several thousand dollars, and one of the most severe consequences is threatened, imprisonment.
But what about the parent who simply is not able to pay, and the situation is temporary? The consequences in the end, will be just as severe as those who intentionally do not pay, but with one major difference, for the one who simply cannot pay (think “getting blood from a stone”, you simply cannot), the ultimate consequences have far more dire impact, especially on the children.
If one parent is unsuccessful at getting the other parent to comply with the court’s support award, and the delinquent parent, in spite of all efforts to raise funds, but currently unable to, should that parent get the children involved in this process? In other words, should a parent use a child to “guilt” the other parent into doing what a court penalty threat has been unable to accomplish? Of course, I am talking about incarceration.
This is the ultimate penalty for any parent unable to face, intentionally not paying the award, or victim of circumstances. For the one who can pay, and simply does not, that parent just writes a check before the deadline, and lives on to another day. But for the one who cannot, perhaps pressure from the one who the parent cherishes the most, their children, may convince the delinquent parent to magically come up with some sort of funds. Just perhaps, if a child is told that the non-custodial parent is facing jail, then the sincere heart felt pleas of “I don’t want you to go to jail”, might convince the parent with no income or savings to pull the rabbit out of a hat, just to protect the child. Of course, that will not happen, because the parent is not doing it intentionally.
But that is exactly what many parents do. Honestly, incarcerating a parent, even worse than the threat itself, will have far reaching impacts on the children. While spouses will eventually end their marriage, if they are parents, they will remain parents forever. But when a child finds out, that one parent intentionally acted to imprison the other parent, that child will resent the other parent, not be upset with the incarcerated parent. When a child finds out, that the parent who had the other parent arrested, and could have pleaded with the judge not to pursue that act, the child will resent that parent, not the parent who was arrested. And this is a fact, you cannot get this time back. A parent cannot get time back that is lost due to resentment, any more than a child can get the time back taken away from the parent who was incarcerated.
But if the parent who is pushing for the incarceration can put their emotions aside, and see the act that is about to take place and for the actual harm it will create, that parent has every opportunity to delay, if not eliminate the judgment. No judge wants to send a parent to jail, especially a parent who is trying to meet the demands of the award. But as I said, the system will not differentiate between someone willingly not paying, and those who temporarily cannot. But what a judge can do, and many times does do, is hear the plea for mercy on the delinquent parent, to withdraw the support contempt complaints, and ask for the sake of the children, not to imprison the other parent.
Giving the other parent, unable to make the payments the continued opportunity to try to meet the award is the time necessary to do so. No it is not convenient, but putting the obvious emotional effects of the children aside, for a parent who is trying, incarceration will only lead to a snowball effect of even more consequences, the biggest, unable to secure, or maintain, employment, which ultimately will make it even harder to comply with the award, which of course means that an even longer period of time would occur before any support could be earned. Which of course would make the financial struggles of a split family even more difficult for the children. And neither parent should want this.
No parent should ever have to see their child look them in the eyes, with tears pleading, “I don’t want to see you go to jail.” Especially when it can be prevented. But if a parent were completely honest, if insisting on telling a child of the pending action, then that parent should be completely honest and let the child know who is ultimately pulling the strings.
Or better yet, the parents could simply do what is best for the children, and work something out that will not affect the children.
There is never, ever a reason to bring a child into this kind of battle. But if they are brought in, through the acts of one parent, all the other parent can do is try to be as honest as possible about the situation.
What a terrible situation. Children are resilient, though and eventually, even if it hurts right now, once they are old enough they will understand the special circumstances, if approached honestly and without any mud slinging.
Trust me on this, Paul. My daughters didn’t know the half of what was going on, during our divorce, but now, as adults, we’ve been able to discuss some of it. I realize now that they were less aware of some of the details than I thought they were, but they weren’t oblivious.
Honesty is always the best approach no matter what their age is -but the level of detail supplied to the children must be age-appropriate. Give them what they can handle, answer questions the best you can without directly targeting or blaming the other parent, but keep it at a level they can understand and be wary of offering too much information.
And trust that in time, they will see what is true.
Thank you Judee.