As a teacher, I have heard so many heartbreaking stories about custody arrangements. My students often describe the custody battles their parents and them have been through. Many tell me about how they wish they could have had some input in these cases, but, more often than not, the court decides their fate without any input from them.
When this article by Ruth Bettelheim came out in the New York Times a few weeks ago, I was immediately reminded of what several of my students had told me in class. Interestingly, Bettelheim is arguing here that children who are old enough to explain their arguments should be seen as old enough to advocate for their own best interests:
Although the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have a right to meaningful participation in decisions affecting them, adults, from some misguided notion of protection, often seek to keep children from making choices in custody matters. But accepting certain kinds of responsibility for their own lives and learning from the consequences of their decisions, even poor ones, is vital for the growth and well-being of all children.
Once children have reached the age of reason — generally agreed to be about 7 — they should be recognized as the ultimate experts on their own lives. We all resent it when others say that they know better than we do how we feel and what is good for us. Nevertheless, we subject children to this when we call in experts to evaluate their lives over a period of days or weeks, as part of the custody process, instead of just listening to them.
Bettelheim also argues that custody arrangements that benefit young children are probably not going to work for teenagers and, as such, should be frequently revisited. The problem there, though, is that, after a messy divorce and custody battle, parents rarely want to revisit anything having to do with the divorce. Kids, then, get stuck with the same old agreement, seeing one parent on the weekends when they’d rather be spending time with friends. I imagine this would be particularly difficult for arrangements where the child had to travel long distances to see the other parent over holidays and vacations.
As a teacher, I know first-hand that many students make poor decisions. The frontal cortex in their brain is still developing, and, especially when emotion enters the equation, they don’t always consider the consequences of their actions. However, I am a firm believer that, when stakes are high, students will rise to the occasion. In my experience, children and teenagers do in fact make good decisions when the situation is grave. If you trust young people, they will almost always do the right thing, and when these decisions concern their future, they won’t try to screw that up.
Believe it or not, children and teens appreciate structure and order, and they know what it takes to get where they want to go. When they’re in class, they want their teacher to show them the boundaries of how far they can go without causing trouble. Similarly, when they are at home, they want a parent who will impose boundaries and rules, and I believe they would make that choice if it came down to it. Children are constantly surprising in their ability to understand and take on the world around them.
I do not believe, however, that a child’s voice should be the only one heard in important decisions like custody arrangements. Just as the child should have the right to speak, so should the parents. Like any situation, it is important for all perspectives to be heard and weighed carefully.
What do you think? Should children’s voices be privileged in custody hearings, or in any other important decision?
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