Payoffs and Pitfalls of Listening to Children

By Warshak, Richard A. | Family Relations, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Payoffs and Pitfalls of Listening to Children


Warshak, Richard A., Family Relations


Children's perspectives can enlighten decisions regarding custody and parenting plans, but different opinions exist about how best to involve children in the decision-making process. This article discusses why most procedures for soliciting children's preferences do not reliably elicit information on their best interests and do not give children a meaningful voice in decision making. Instead, these procedures provide children with forums in which to takes sides in their parents' disputes. In addition to hearing an individual child's voice, decision makers can use the collective voice of children, as revealed in research on such topics as joint custody, overnight stays, and relocation to help understand what children might say about these issues with the hindsight of maturity and in the absence of parental pressure, loyalty conflicts, inhibitions, and limitations in perspective and articulation.

Key Words: child custody, divorce, joint custody, visitation, relocation.

Controversies about the long-term legacy of divorce are relevant to the families who experience it themselves, as well as to scholars and researchers. How one construes the consequences of divorce also has implications both for clinical practice and for policy making. Implications for clinical work are discussed by Haine et al. (2003) and Ahrons and Tanner (2003) in this issue of Family Relations. Implications for divorce policy are discussed from an international perspective in Walker (2003, this issue). The current article addresses the implications of divorce research for a specific divorce policy: how professionals involve children in decision-making processes. The perspective developed here is illustrated through its application to the issues of joint custody, overnight stays, and relocation.

Throughout history, the voices of children have been conspicuously absent from decisions that affected their welfare following their parents' divorce. Instead, concepts of parental rights and gender stereotypes determined the postdivorce fate of children (Roth, 1976; Warshak, 1992, 1996). Throughout most of the 20th century, the beliefs (a) that women, by nature, are better suited to love and care for children, and (b) that children need mothers more than they need fathers resulted in most children living with their mothers after divorce and infrequently spending time with their fathers.

The weakening of gender stereotypes and growing concern about equal protection under the law led to the adoption of the best-interests-of-the-child standard in the early 1970s (Scott, 1992). This standard was intended to substitute a broad range of gender-neutral criteria for the a priori preference for sole mother custody of young children. The goal of individualized custody decisions was not immediately realized until the emergence, a decade later, of a genuine understanding of the impact on children of various custody dispositions. Pioneering projects by Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) in California and Hetherington, Cox, and Cox (1978, 1982) in Virginia measured various aspects of psychological functioning and helped show conventional post-divorce arrangements from the children's perspective as revealed in interviews and self-report scales. Research with father-custody families (e.g., Rosen, 1977; Warshak & Santrock, 1983a, 1983b) and joint-custody families (e.g., Greif, 1979; Steinman, 1981; Wolchik, Braver, & Sandler, 1985) gave further voice to children's concerns and preferences in the aftermath of parental divorce.

Judith Wallerstein was an early, passionate, and eloquent champion of children from divorced families. Her work with these children led her to conclude that their feelings and preferences should be given serious consideration by the courts. Writing about relocation, she stated, "Especially at the time of a contemplated move, the court should be responsive to the child's voice, amplifying it above the din of competing parents. …

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