Have you ever heard a mother or a father claim that they are not acting in their children’s best interests? Of course not.
The disagreement is not with the concept in and of itself, but with each individual’s translation of its meaning. Here the differences between parents are apparent in intact families as well as in divorced families. Arguments range from the seemingly mundane disputes to those with weighty consequences.
“No, our Johnny should not play soccer until he is in first grade.” Or maybe, “No, Johnny needs to take two naps a day.” Or, “Yes, we do need to help finance Johnny’s college.”
Parental disagreements on food, sleeping, television watching, movies, bedtime – all household policies are endless. As, too, are those that deal with the larger issues such as need for medical help (especially with respect to the delivery of psychiatric services) and financing post-secondary education. Parental debates almost always invoke the powerful claim that one parent is thinking only of Johnny’s or Mary’s best interests. Consider, for a moment, a conversation on funding a child’s post-secondary education, clearly a major question in many homes.
Parent One: “Of course, I want Johnny to go to college and to get an education that will best prepare him for the future, but I don’t think that going into long-term debt is the solution. There are great schools out there that cost less than $50,000.00/year.”
Parent Two: “Johnny should be able to pick any school he wants without you waving a dollar sign over his head. What kind of parent are you?”
Parent One: “If Johnny assumes part of the responsibility for funding his schooling, he’ll have a vested interest in doing well. He’ll become more responsible; maybe he’ll even stop being such a lazy student.”
Parent Two: “Choice is in Johnny’s best interests.”
Parent One: “Responsibility is in Johnny’s best interests.”
There are no “clues”, no “giveaways” in this parental dispute as to whether the parents are married or divorced. Parenting disputes bridge any noticeably gap between families. By extension one can agree that all parents are alike even if they live in different households.
This brings us full circle back to our central question of what, then, is really in Johnny’s or Mary’s best interest? At the Centre for Mediation & Dispute Resolution (CMDR), we would argue that there is no uniform definition of what is in a child’s best interests and, more importantly, that no two children have identical needs or are best served in the same way. However, there are certain guidelines that do support a more generalized definition of what is in a child’s best interests. The following are a few examples:
· Children need to feel wanted and loved by both parents. Regardless of their living arrangements, they need to know and believe that their parents both care about them.
· Children need to be able to love both parents without recriminations; they do not need to apologize for loving.
· Parents need to collaborate in resolving disputes about children without drawing children into the fray.
· Parents are the adults; they need to find ways to deal with their friction that do not injure their children.
Couples who elect to mediate their divorce often elect to do so precisely because they want to protect their children from injury. They believe that by structuring their divorce together, they can focus on the “best interests of their children”. Clearly, by now, it has become obvious that these well-intentioned parents may not agree on what is best for their children. They may, for example, disagree on custodial arrangements, on family policies, and on questions pertaining to the delivery of psychological services and on financing college. Yet disagreement in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. The danger lies not in having differences of opinion but rather in the route you choose for resolving your differences. Mediation is, of course, a positive step; it denotes for the vast majority of its participants an intention to work together to reach agreements. Perhaps it also means that parents have to focus, first and last, on fashioning parenting plans and determining long-range planning for their children’s welfare – together. Each one may need to compromise on the final agreements but compromises reached together are always superior to court-determined edicts. No one wins in a custody suit; no one wins when parents enter into protracted and heated contests over children or finances. Mediation, as a commitment to reach agreement, is a gift that well-intended parents give to their children – in the end that is clearly in the best interests of the children.
Dr. Lynne C. Halem is the director at the Centre for Mediation & Dispute Resolution in Wellesley, MA. Dr. Halem has worked in the mediation field since 1982. She is on the Family Dispute Service Panel of the American Arbitration Association and a past board member of the Divorce Center, Inc. Dr. Halem served two terms as President of the Massachusetts Council of Family Mediation. She has been featured in Boston Globe and Boston Herald articles on divorce mediation and has appeared on television and radio programs as an expert in the field of mediation and alternative dispute resolution.
Dr. Halem is a recognized specialist in family policy and family law with a masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate from Harvard University. She is the author of two scholarly books on divorce: Divorce Reform: Changing Legal and Social Perspectives (Free Press of Macmillan, 1980), a featured selection of the Lawyers' Literary Club, and Separated and Divorced Women (Greenwood Press, 1982), a Choice book of the year selection for academic excellence. She has served as a consultant to corporations in the public and private sectors and taught at various colleges and universities.