In his book "Tug of War: A Judge's Verdict on Separation, Custody Battles, and the Bitter Realities of Family Court", Mr. Justice Harvey Brownstone offers the following advice:

"Parents must love their children more than they dislike each other. Children need peace more than their parents need to win."

I bought this book shortly after Justice Brownstone's TV show, "Family Matters", debuted on CHEK-TV this Fall after a popular online series last year. What makes his show unique is that it is the first time that an active sitting Family Court judge has appeared on television to explain in very candid terms how the family justice system works, how it doesn't, and how it differs from what is depicted on Court TV. No Judge Judy, he. I read the book from cover to cover, resolved to follow the sage advice contained in it, and then, like so many other good books stuffed with great advice, put it back on the shelf and carried on much as before.

Until last week. Thing One has always been a highly intelligent, sensitive and emotional child, prone to outbursts of temper, and has developed traits of oppositional defiance in the last year or two. He has struggled with the differing parenting styles of myself and his mother, often playing us off against each other as we battled over how to deal with his behavior and parenting in general. This has been particularly true since the separation, and his anger and frustration began to manifest itself both on and off the ice at his hockey games, culminating in my deciding to sit him for the last five minutes of not the first game in which his behavior was causing problems. My ex and I, in a rare moment of agreement, decided that he needed a break from his beloved hockey to regroup and so we could figure out what we could do about it.

Then came the Christmas break, when both The Things spent a week with each of us, first with their mother and then with me. When the Things came to stay with me, I was able to have a really good conversation with Thing One in the calm that comes after one of his rages, when he said a couple of things that showed that he was gaining some insight into his emotions, their causes and effects. He said he wanted to go back to hockey, so I set out two conditions under which I thought that could happen: that he participate in some form of anger management therapy and that, if there was a repeat of the behavior that led to his break from playing, he would be done for the rest of the season. He thought about that for a moment and then came the first moment of insight. He said, "Dad, I don't think I can get through the season without another outburst right now." We talked about it some more, and he agreed that it would be better to focus on learning to deal with managing his emotions with a view to being able to return to the ice, with a concerted effort from him, before the end of the season.

We talked some more about his anger and where it might come from and then came the second insightful comment from him. He told me that one of the things that made him angry was coming to the apartment. It reminds him in very real terms that things are no longer the way they were, and he finds the constant packing to move back and forth causes anxiety. He said that he would like a break from it, so I said I would speak to his Mom and we would see what we wanted to do about it.

That evening, I emailed my ex about this conversation. The next day, Thing One told me that he had been told not to worry about my conditions and that he could go back to playing hockey right away. Worse still, he later told me that my message about the break from visits had been relayed to him by his mother as if I had said I didn't want to have them at the apartment any more.

I struggled with what to say about this to the kids. How can you explain it, maintain the integrity of your opinion, without committing the dual sins of speaking negatively about your ex to the children, and openly contradicting her to them? And then I remembered Justice Brownstone's advice, "Children need peace more than their parents need to win." I realized that in order for my children to experience some peace, I needed to allow them to hear only one voice instead of one in each ear, even if that voice wasn't the one I wanted it to be. What has been causing anxiety for the kids is not necessarily what either my ex or I have been saying to them, but the dichotomy that is created when we are both attempting to do what we think is best for them, but when that is hardly ever the same thing.

And so, I will drop my end of the rope in our tug of war. I will allow our children to experience the peace of hearing one voice when it comes to decisions that affect their lives. Does this mean they will not hear my voice at all? Of course not, but it will be the voice that asks how their day went, that tells them I love them, that reads them bedtime stories. 

I need this, they need this, more than I need to win.
1/9/2012 08:52:50 am

Amazing article and insight. You are a very inspiring father and the irony is... by letting go of the rope, I believe, in time, the children will see things differently and will long for the peace you bring. Bless you.

1/9/2012 09:43:11 am

Thank you for your inspiring and encouraging comment. I believe so too, and I think our long-term relationship will be better for it.



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    Recently separated, forty-something father of two. Navy, Green Bay Packers and Jeopardy! fan. Motorcycle rider and Information Technology refugee.

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