by Honorable Anne Kass. Ann Kass is a District Judge in the Second Judicial District State of New Mexico
Divorced parents often have very different perspectives about what their children want or need.
A short time ago two parents in my court were debating whether their 5-year-old son should fly unescorted between Phoenix and Albuquerque for visitation. The mother said, "He hates to fly." The father said, "He loves to fly." I said, "Are you talking about the same little boy?"
When I asked the mother what made her think her son hated flying she said, "Because he told me so." The father noted that's how he too had got his information. The child had told his father that he loved flying.
A child telling each of his parents different things is a common occurrence in divorce cases. Sometimes children do this to manipulate their parents, but more often the child's goal isn't manipulation or deceit; the child's goal is to make each of the parents happy.
Children are remarkably astute at figuring out what grownups want to hear, especially their parents. One way to make a parent happy is to tell each of them what they want to hear.
In the case of the flying-five-year-old, he knew his mother hated flying and he knew she didn't like him flying. He accurately predicted that he could put a big smile on her face by telling her, "Mommy, I hate to fly." At the same time, he knew his father liked flying and wanted him to fly unescorted. Again the child accurately predicted that dad would be ever so pleased if he said, "Daddy, I like to fly."
Children trying to make both parents happy is one of the major reasons why courts so often recommend children of divorced parents have counseling. One of the dangers a child who is trying to please both parents with opposite points of view faces is the loss of his or her own point of view. They get confused and lose touch with their own feelings.
If it makes mom happy to hear you feel the same way she does and if it makes dad happy to feel the same way he does, a child can easily lose track of how the child himself feels.
If a child has a counselor, there is at least one person who the child does not have to please. The child does not have to worry about making the counselor happy, and the counselor can help the child sort out his own feelings and beliefs from those of his parents.
Divorced parents who want their children to grow-up to be self-sufficient, independent individuals need to be sensitive to how powerful their child's need to please is, because children of divorced parents always have the nagging fear that if their parents could stop loving and leave each other, they might do the same thing to them. Divorced parents need always to question what may be behind a child echoing-back the parent's likes and dislikes. A counselor can make this job a bit easier.