I hope that young children were not still up and watching the *Academy Awards broadcast when Will Smith got out of his seat, walked up the concourse, and forcefully slapped Chris Rock for making a poor joke at the expense of his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. But even if children didn’t watch it live, they are likely still being exposed to the ongoing coverage and analysis of this startling event on social media and mainstream media. Disagreement abounds over which man was most in the wrong. Some posters and oped writers try to justify each man’s actions. There have been thoughtful critiques about toxic masculinity in our culture, and how it inevitably leads to violence of one kind or another. Many believe Chris Rock was bullying Jada Pinkett Smith by publicly mocking her bald head, especially given her alopecia. Some respond that comedians insulting celebrities at “star-studded events” and roasts has become something of the norm and is to be expected. Some say Will Smith’s retaliation was also bullying behavior, since Smith was trained to box like a professional for the film Ali and is much bigger and stronger than Rock. But others respond that his response was justified to “protect” his wife. (I confess, I thought Pinkett Smith’s grimace of disgust and exaggerated eye roll at the weak joke was a pretty potent response in and of itself). What does this whole event model for our children, who emulate adult behavior? Is mocking others, especially for things they can’t control, ever justified? Does saying “Just kidding!” after a cruel remark make it okay? Should bystanders go along by joining the mocking laughter, or do they have a responsibility to call out bullying behavior? Is lashing out aggressively after a perceived put-down ever justified? Does being “in the heat of the moment and not thinking clearly” make an impulsive violent response, okay? Should bystanders go along by saying nothing, or do they have a responsibility to call out violent behavior? What does this event say about how women and girls should expect to be treated? In the Me Too era, a time when native women have disappeared in shocking numbers, when human trafficking and domestic violence are still huge social problems, we know that women do need the strong protection of laws and social norms. Is this kind of protection the same or different than what happened at the Oscars? If you haven’t already, I encourage you to watch the documentary “When We Were Bullies.” This film was also featured briefly at the Academy Awards as a nominee for best short documentary. Ellen Bruno, the creator of the masterful film Split about the children of divorce was a creative consultant for this film, which is extremely well done. It focuses on a 5th grade bullying incident and the lingering effects, 50 years later, on those who participated. Like this essay, it raises important questions and examines context and perspective, but does not aim for simplistic resolutions. As parents and adults who care about children, we need to have open conversations with them, and ask curious questions about bullying behavior vs. respectful behavior and the difference between control and power. We need to ask ourselves what it really means to create safety for others, and what responsibility we all share when safety is violated. And we need to always be aware that the most powerful tool in the adult toolkit is modeling the behavior we want our children to emulate and taking responsibility rather than blaming others for any time we (as humans) fall off the high road. *Since this article was written, Will Smith has apologized publicly for his inexcusable behavior at the Academy Awards ceremony. He has been banned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Awards ceremony for 10 years. Author: Deborah Clemmensen, M.Eq., L.P. is a Neutral Child and Family Specialist in Collaborative Practice and Family Law email@example.com
In collaborative dissolution cases, this is a common objection when meeting for the first time with clients. Another variation is, “I can be a terrific co-parent, just not with my spouse.” I am often stymied by this reaction. Of course, I know nothing about the other spouse except the views of my potential client. My initial response is to acquiesce and to reject the collaborative approach. But depending on the circumstances, both spouses bear the risk of escalating litigation. A better approach is to persuade the spouse in my office of the advantages of the collaborative model, especially if the couple has trouble communicating. They may have misperceived the resistance of the other spouse. I consider the context. The couple has typically been working toward a break-up for a long time. They have often taken strong positions based upon strained communications. I encourage the spouse to review the open communications features described in the Participation Agreement. For example, in four-way meetings with clients and attorneys, both spouses can be safely heard without the risk that their words could later be regretted. In addition, the spouses themselves can set the pace of the process rather than be bound by judicial deadlines. This may be persuasive in cases where one spouse is more eager to end the marriage. Resolution is often facilitated when some issues are allowed to “percolate.” Another advantage of the collaborative process is cost savings. Initially, this seemed to me to be counter-intuitive given the potential number of team members and meetings. But when the alternative is communicating exclusively through the attorneys, these meetings are a bargain. If a client in my office expresses a favorable view toward the collaborative process, another approach is to communicate directly in writing with the “stubborn” spouse. The correspondence always contains the caveat that I represent only their spouse and I recommend they obtain their own attorney. I include a general discussion recommending the collaborative model and provide IACP literature and brochures. The letter accurately states that the vast majority of all divorces are resolved through settlement. A major advantage with the collaborative process is the emphasis on preserving future relationships (especially where minor children are involved). In discussing the problem of the stubborn spouse, one of my colleagues gave me permission to share the following experience. He consulted with a woman who was knowledgeable and favorably inclined towards a collaborative divorce. But she was adamant that her husband was too stubborn and controlling to ever agree to anything she suggested. Nevertheless, she agreed that he could send her husband a letter recommending the collaborative process. The letter was down-to-earth and explained the practical benefits of enhanced communications and interest-based negotiations. To his client’s surprise, her husband agreed to give it a try and requested a referral to another collaborative lawyer. As it turned out, the collaborative process proved successful. The take-away for both collaborative professionals and clients is to continue exploring this option even when confronted with resistance from a stubborn spouse. The process of reaching agreement is facilitated when couples can meet on their own terms. Also, clients are often attracted to the collegial format. If a resistant spouse is on the fence, share with them Father Frances Fleming’s sage advice, “Love your enemies. It drives them nuts.” About the Author Gregory R. Solum, Attorney at Law My goal is to guide my clients to their destination in a manner that is transparent, fluid and valuable. General Practice of Civil, Family, Probate and Appellate Law since 1980/ Mediator (including Family Court) since 1995/ Collaborative Team Divorce since 2000/ University of Minnesota Law School Instructor 1991-2009. www.solumlaw.com
Children begin their lives constantly observing and emulating our use of language. A baby watches, listens and models her mother’s face saying “Ohhhh,” moving her own lips to form the shape of that sound. A toddler in his car seat repeats the word his parent blurted out when cut off suddenly in traffic, usually to the great chagrin of the parent. My 5-year-old granddaughter cocks her head seriously and says, “Well, actually, the most interesting thing is…..” just the way her mom does. Knowing they are listening, seeking to understand, and emulating how we talk, adults must be mindful of what we say and how we say it in the presence of children. This may be especially important during the life crisis of a divorce, when children are already feeling vulnerable and anxious. Similar to being cut off suddenly in traffic, negative emotions during a divorce can quickly heighten, along with the risk of blurting out words one will later regret. When under stress, the guard rails filtering words can become wobbly or fall off altogether. It’s not just angry, sarcastic, insulting words that children internalize, it is also the meaning of those words in the context of relationships. Children are deeply hurt and frightened when parents fight with each other, and not infrequently, will beg them to stop. What does it mean to them that the two most important adults in their lives are attacking each other this way? We live in an era when disrespect, insulting and belittling words and verbal abuse are regularly tweeted out in all caps. Sadly, this has the effect of normalizing unfiltered language. This is hard enough to manage as an adult but giving vent to verbal rage will never be anything but damaging to a child. So, what can parents do if they feel triggered? They need to slow it down. Two simple techniques to help create more mental and emotional space under stress are:
- Mindful breathing: taking at least four deep, slow belly breaths before responding; and
- Softening your eyes: focusing on relaxing the muscles around your eyes so they fall back into their sockets.
Who would ever ask for a two month supply of elevated cortisol and high anxiety in their Christmas stocking! Yet for many, the holiday season adds to rather than relieves stress as parents feel obliged to layer Hallmark fantasies about “the most wonderful time of the year” onto work demands, gift shopping, extra food preparation, children’s activities, cleaning and decorating. The holiday season can feel challenging during the best of times. What about when holidays fall during one of the most difficult of times, when parents are in the process of separating or getting unmarried? While feeling overwhelmed themselves, many parents worry that their divorces will cast a pall on Christmas or Hanukkah or winter solstice activities for their children. Your kids don’t benefit if you make yourself miserable with unrealistic expectations for “business as usual” over the holidays if you’re running on empty and in pain. But it’s also unfair to them to completely pull the plug on holiday celebrations for the same reasons. More than presents, your children need your presence, love and support, as they deal with their own feelings of sadness and loss about the family change. The winter holidays are all about hope and light, which children need to thrive, so help them find moments with you to experience them both:
- Have a clarifying discussion with your co-parent about what to expect in terms of help with holiday rituals like decorating the house, shared gift-giving for the kids and possible shared activities like Christmas morning or one of the nights of Hanukkah.
- Decide with your kids (or for them, depending on their ages) on a few heart-felt and meaningful ways to celebrate. Having a do-able game plan can relieve stress. Now is a good time to create new rituals as well as honor the old.
- Be authentic and set realistic expectations for activities and gifts if your energy and finances are low. Resist any urge to blame your co-parent. Putting your kids in the middle is guaranteed to make them unhappy.
- Actively enlist your support system this year. Most people who care about you will want to help, so give them a way. Cookies made by a friend or family member will be just as delicious, and someone would love to help you set up your tree. Meet with your therapist, go to the gym, get that massage.
- Affirm your support for your kids to enjoy holiday activities with both sides of their extended family. When you are not with them, focus not on resentment, but on resting, renewing and recharging in the true spirit of the season.
April is Autism Awareness Month, the two month anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and the 19th anniversary of Columbine. Why talk about ASD and school shootings in the same sentence? And why a divorce blog? I will get to that. But as a lawyer-mom, these two issues are at the forefront of my mind, and probably the minds of many parents and educators these days. We should rest assured that our kids would know what to do during a lock-down because they have spontaneous drills throughout the year, right? Ugh…what am I saying? The fact that kids NEED lockdown drills is downright outrageous! Nonetheless, I wondered what the younger kids are told and what happens during these drills. Well, lucky me, when I recently volunteered in my son’s elementary school classroom, the school had a lock down drill. And one word sums up the experience: chilling. Lockdown drills are very different from the fire and tornado drills we had as kids. I’m sure everyone remembers the fire drills – exit the classroom quickly and get away from the building. Or the tornado drills – go out to the hallways, away from the doors and windows, and cover your head with your hands. Up until about 1999, THOSE were the drills Minnesotan kids experienced. In fact, most the time, much to our teacher’s chagrin, we were laughing and joking around. A lock down drill, however, has a very different vibe. The kids must be EXTREMELY quiet. They huddle into a specific area and are instructed to remain eerily still. This had been a bustling class (and school) just moments before, but now it was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. This was a class of 30 second graders, so I was stunned at the deafening silence. Just when I thought it was over (it seemed like forever, but was probably two minutes) someone rattled the door handle. Forcefully. Not a peep from the kids, but I jumped. Luckily, they didn’t see me or they might have erupted into giggles. We had to continue to remain quiet and motionless. Interestingly, I don’t remember what happened next; that is, I don’t recall if there was a bell or another signal indicating the drill was over (I think I was sort of in shock). The kids went about their business, working on their projects, like it was no big deal. Only it was a big deal. At least it was to me and the other adults in the room. I just looked at the staff, wide-eyed, and shook my head. School lock downs are now a reality for school-aged children. It makes my heart ache. I asked my son that evening why they have lockdowns and he nonchalantly said it was in case anyone wants to break into the school. That was it. Simple enough. But as we grown-ups know, there is nothing simple about this. My son is a “mover and a crasher,” so I was relieved he made it through the drill. But I thought about the other high-needs/special-needs kids in his school. For any child who has physical needs or doesn’t cognitively understand the drill, simply can’t be quiet and remain calm, needs to move, or overreacts when accidentally bumped or touched by a classmate, what would that child do in this drill? Or, God forbid, in a REAL situation? With more and more kids being diagnosed with ASD, what protocols are in place for them? Is there a special section in their IEP about drills? There ought to be. This made me think about special-needs kids whose parents are going through a divorce. The teachers are aware of kids’ needs (or should be). So, too, should the divorce team. A child’s symptoms often reemerge or worsen when they are stressed, which could happen during parental conflict and/or separation. Child specialists can work with the parents and the child’s pediatrician and/or therapist to help create a parenting plan that is in the child’s best interests. Like it or not, otherwise fit and loving parents need to work together for there children’s sake. Fortunately, the Collaborative process can help parents really focus on their kids, by putting them in the center, rather than the middle, of the divorce process. Every family situation is unique. Every family and every child deserve a creative plan to help move them forward, restructure, and get to a new “normal.” Drill and lockdown protocols included.
Empathy is the word for the capacity to understand another person’s perspective or experience without necessarily agreeing with it. Empathy allows humans to be in synch and resonate with each other in spite of differences. There is plentiful scientific and anecdotal evidence that humans crave the sense of being understood. Feeling recognized and understood is one aspect of dignity and the belief that one has inherent worth as a human being. From my experience, I would like to share a few examples of how empathy can lead to wise decisions during a separation or divorce. A young woman with whom I have a professional relationship recently told me that the nesting arrangement she and her spouse were using to ease their children’s transition during their divorce had become too difficult to maintain. She essentially felt homeless and ungrounded, moving from the homestead to a shared apartment when on and off duty with the kids. Her take-away from this experience was deep empathy for the task children face when needing to transition from one home to the other. She said, “I completely get why we need to each have all the things our children will need to be comfortable in both homes, and why we should not ask them to pack suitcases for a transition. They will need our patience and understanding as they get used to this.” Some parents with whom I worked on a parenting plan had empathy for the difficulty extended family members were experiencing as the holidays approached. They recognized that people with whom they had been close didn’t know how to act, or whether to invite soon-to-be former spouses to events or holiday gatherings involving the kids. In one case, a parent had misinterpreted silence as rejection, only to find that it was borne of confusion and sadness. These parents decided to send a We Statement to both extended families, describing the respectful, collaborative process they were using in their divorce and the hard work they were doing to transition from a married couple to effective co-parents. They said they welcomed questions and hoped for loving support for their children and for them as they made this transition. My third story of empathy involves a teen and his parents. He worried that his mom’s feelings would be hurt because he wanted to continue working out at the home gym in his dad’s house, and not with the equipment his mom had purchased while expressing the wish that work-outs could occur in both homes. He appreciated her gesture, but knew that his dad was experienced in spotting him and managing the work-out sessions, and his mom was not. He understood that his mom wanted something special to do with him too, and we came up with a plan for his mom to give him cooking lessons (another interest of his) because she was a wonderful cook. His parents also showed empathy for their son’s dilemma, and when given this feedback told him he was free to spend time at either home to enjoy special activities even if it wasn’t that parent’s official parenting time. The ability to be open and responsive to how another person thinks or feels is one of the gifts of being human. It is also a healing force during times of distress and crisis. Being empathetic demonstrates strength, and experiencing empathy is one of the foundations of resilience for kids.
Children deserve the best, safe parenting they can get from both their parents. This is a fundamental guiding principle for my work as a neutral child specialist. It sounds intuitiveand obvious. But in the context of separation and divorce, what do these words really mean? Let’s start with the word deserve. Deserve can imply earned by merit. It can also imply entitlement and privilege by virtue of rank. But neither is an accurate definition in this context. The birthright of children with the benefit of having two competent and caring parents is to be nurtured, guided and unconditionally loved by both. Regardless of the status of the relationship between their parents. What does best mean? Not “we’re #1,” not competitively better than any other parents in our kid’s play group, not striving for perfection. Best is what describes responsive, mindful, attuned, child-focused parenting. Setting expectations that allow kids to achieve mastery without becoming overwhelmed. Understanding that your child’s needs and perspectives are different than your own, and not suppressing his or her individuality. Staying centered and finding resources to help manage your own emotions to model how to handle hard times without falling apart. Even during a painful separation or divorce. That leaves the word safe. What is safe parenting? Safe parenting does not mean that children will never experience pain, disappointment, loss, sadness or anxiety. It means that when hard times come, parents turn toward and never away from their children and provide consistent empathy and support. Safe parenting is clear-headed, not distracted or addicted. Safe parenting requires good boundaries, emotionally as well as physically; children do not exist to meet the needs of their parents. Safe parenting means that kids never belong in the middle of conflicts between parents, even when parents are experiencing the distress of a separation or divorce. Safe parenting means children do not feel abandoned. Parents’ actions and words create narratives and expectations children will carry throughout their lives. These stories define self-worth and can make or break a sense of hope for the future. Creating child-focused, developmentally appropriate parenting plan is one way to ensure your children’s narrative of divorce includes the best, safe parenting for them as they head into the future.
With the holidays upon us, most of us are getting ready for gatherings with family and friends and figuring out who is hosting which holiday. Many families have traditions that may go back generations. As parents, we may choose to keep those traditions or create new ones. One of my family traditions was my grandmother’s cranberry marshmallow salad. I have her recipe, helped her make it when I was a little girl, but I just can’t recreate it on my own. No matter how much sugar I add, it’s too tart; sadly, I might just need to let this tradition go. (Unlike the shredded carrot and jello salad many of us grew up with, this cranberry salad really was fabulous!) I discovered and revised a cranberry sauce that my kids actually eat, so that has become part of our Thanksgiving tradition. While she is no longer with us and I miss her terribly, I suspect my grandmother would be just fine with my new creation. Whether your traditions are about food, going to Grandma’s every Thanksgiving or stopping by for dessert at Uncle Jim’s Christmas Day, traditions are part of who we are. For families experiencing separation and divorce, it’s important to try to maintain those traditions. A new normal, along with new traditions, will eventually emerge, but if your kids love going to your in-laws because Uncle John makes the best peach pie ever and Santa makes a special appearance for the little ones – thanks to Uncle Al – please maintain those traditions for your kids. While you might not want to spend the holidays with your (former) spouse and his or her family, based on what clients have told me, consider the following: 1) share the holidays, rather than trying to keep them all to yourself, so your kids can enjoy those special traditions (who doesn’t love spending time with all the aunts, uncles, and cousins? On both sides of the family?) and 2) consider spending the holidays with your former spouse at some point in the future. Sounds crazy, right? No…your kids would love it! While it is probably the furthest thing from your mind right now and might not happen for some time, parents who are able to step up for the benefit of their kids are glad they were able to come together as co-parents and enjoy their children together. And if you have had a good relationship with your in-laws in the past, chances are, you will have a pleasant time, too. ‘Tis the season for giving…and you will definitely be giving your kids a wonderful gift.
I once heard that parenting books are one of the largest segments in non-fiction publishing. Everyone apparently thinks they have tips and ideas to help others parent. As a collaborative divorce attorney, clients often seek guidance and support in co-parenting during and after the divorce. No book ever fits the bill. While traditional books may offer some guidance, co-parenting after divorce is a unique situation. Not only do children sometimes have challenges as the result of the divorce, parents too are transitioning into a new reality. In collaborative divorce, we often work with a family specialist or child specialist to help families transition from one home, into two. This neutral party can assist in many aspects of parenting, including the following:
- Coach parents on telling the children about divorce.
- Bring the children’s voice to the process by hearing their concerns and hopes and communicating them to the parents.
- Communication coaching.
- Developing a parenting plan and schedule for parenting in two homes.
- How to maintain relationships with extended family.
- Consulting after divorce as new things arise.
- Periodic check-ins on parenting and child development.
- Any other parenting challenge that arises during or after the divorce.
Remember hearing that as a child? I do. I said it. I believed it. And then I didn’t. Names DO hurt, even if they aren’t “really bad, mean names.” They can burn a memory into your brain that can haunt you. My son, who is six, is one of the younger children in his 1st grade class. Next to his 2nd grade soccer buddies, he’s a bit vertically challenged, although he’s considered “average” in height. Nonetheless, when he came home in tears the other day because an older child called him “shorty,” he undoubtedly felt the sting of name-calling. Welcome to the real world, my sweet, darling son! We have all experienced it, to some extent, and it stinks. Rather than utter that renowned phrase to my son, my collaboratively-trained lawyer brain went into “better-get-more-information” mode. The conversation went like this: Me: How did that make you feel when he said that? Son: Sad. Me: Mmmmm….I can see that… Son: And angry… Me: Definitely! (Pause). So, what happened next? Son: (without missing a beat) I grabbed the ball out of his hands, dribbled it down the court, and made a basket. Me: (Stunned!) Wow! That is AMAZING! (Beaming with pride…that’s my boy!) So, my son “shows up” this kid by making a basket, yet he was still upset (hours?) later and recalls the name-calling rather than his awesome basket?! This certainly illustrates words have a HUGE impact on others, whether we realize it or not. It doesn’t have to be name-calling, either. It can be just the language we use and the way we say it. The tone in our voice can turn an otherwise innocuous comment into a heated argument. So…STOP. Take a DEEP breath (and maybe throw a stick at some THING). THINK before you speak, and CHOOSE your words carefully. Then go shoot some hoops.