Do children have a “Bill of Rights” in divorce? Author Vicki Lansky believed they do. In her now-classic guide, "Divorce Book for Parents: Helping Your Children Cope with Divorce and its Aftermath," she included three rights she believes children have.
Lanky, who was 75, died this week. She wrote more than 30 self-help and inspirational books, including The New York Times bestseller, "Taming of the C.A.N.D.Y. (Continuously Advertised Nutritionally Deficient Yummies)." Her "Divorce Book for Parents" was the most helpful book for me when I was going through my divorce. Here are some highlights.
Lanksy's "Bill of Rights" for Children in Divorce:
1. The right to be treated as an interested and affected person, not a pawn between fighting parents.
2. The right to a positive and constructive relationship with both parents, with neither parent permitted to degrade the other.
3. The right to an adequate level of economic support.
These points resonated with me when I was going through my divorce, and I still remind myself of them, even though my three daughters are grown.
Lansky, who wrote other parenting books, acknowledged that no two divorces are alike, and she offered insight for a variety of scenarios. I appreciated her candor about the on-going relationship between divorced parents, and the need to really think through how we talk to our kids and about our former spouses. “Because your children are part of your lives, you and your spouse will always be part of each other’s lives,” she wrote.
In some ways, a divorcing parent does remain “wed” to his or her once-spouse. As Lansky points out—and more recent researchers, therapists and writers have reiterated—striving for the best possible relationship with your children’s other parent is a hugely important part of parenting.
I also really valued the section on breaking the news to your children. Lansky offered specific guidance for telling the kids, and wrote that your tone as well as your words make a difference. I found this a helpful reminder. She also stressed the fact that our children may want to protect us, and therefore not share difficult feelings—leading us to think they’re not struggling, when they may, in fact, be having a hard time. Kids can blame themselves for a divorce, or think they could have prevented it. It’s important to reassure your children that they are not at fault.
Other tips for telling the kids:
Make a firm commitment not to argue before or during the talk.
Write down what you plan to say, and give your kids a copy.
Be honest about the pain involved for your children and for you and your spouse.
Don’t lie or make promises you can’t keep.
Avoid blaming your spouse, and let your kids know you want them to continue loving both of you.
Reassure children that they will always be cared for and protected.
No matter what age your children, harmful words have a way of slipping out. Lanksy emphasized that children need to believe in, and love both parents. Don’t deny them that.
When you attack a child’s parent, it will feel to that child like you are attacking the child.
As important as knowing what to say is knowing what not to say. She offered a list of things not to say.
Here's a sampling of what not to say:
“Now that you’re the ‘man of the house’ (‘the little mother’) . . .”
“If your father (mother) is five minutes late again, you’re just not going with him (her).”
“What is your mother (father) saying about me?”
Though this book has been around for years, I consider it a classic of good divorce guidance. It offers sound advice for all stages of divorce, regardless of whether you are gay or straight, old or young, happy or sad, rich or poor. Some of Lansky’s suggestions harken back to a time when 50-50 custody was less common than it is today. But the ways in which our words can support or harm our children have not changed.
Read more about Vicki Lansky's life and work here.
Susan Orlins is an award-winning journalist and author of Confessions of a Worrywart: Husbands, Lovers, Mothers and Others and co-author of Still Standing: How an Ex-Con Found Salvation in the Floodwaters of Katrina. She has three grown daughters and has been divorced since 1998. For more than a decade, she has taken yearly vacations with her ex-husband and their daughters. She lives in Washington D.C., where she is an editor of Street Sense, a newspaper written and sold by homeless vendors.