As our mediation session ended and he rose to leave, Mark turned to me and asked: So, can we now tell our daughter what we’ve decided?
I mirrored his smile, recognizing the relief he felt following a tense hour of talk, and his wish to cement the agreement he and his wife, Ginny, had just made about how they would share time with their daughter once they separated.
I said: Sure, but remember you’re telling her, not asking.
Unlike in years long past when most mothers were full-time parents, and fathers relatively uninvolved, these two were fully engaged in their careers, and both played an active role in the life of their ten-year-old daughter. They were of one mind about the wisdom of ending what had been an unhappy marriage, but both feared a loosening of the bond with their child that sharing time might bring.
Mark had suggested that they simply ask their daughter to choose a plan. Ginny, wisely in my view, argued against this. Although to many parents this seems a sound approach, a few present the question to their child purposely seeking to undermine the other parent, anger winning out over reason. Then the child’s response in their favor is proudly presented, even quoting the specific language used, and conflict is fueled as the other parent cringes at the hurtful phrases attributed to their son or daughter. For example:
“She says she’d be scared to stay with you and won’t be able to get to sleep.” “He told me that he would much rather just stay at my house all the time.”
When I hear such taunts, I quickly interject: Best take those comments with a grain of salt.
But most parents ask with good intention. Then they are comforted by an apparent special alliance sought by the child. A neutral listener would readily recognize the child’s need to please each parent, if indeed the quoted remark is even accurate. Very likely it is not.
During mediation with Mark and Ginny, I told them about research findings reported some years ago in The Journal of Experimental Psychology. The conclusion: that adults are likely to remember incorrectly whether information was offered spontaneously by a child, or elicited through questions. And perhaps even more telling, adults are likely to confuse specific statements they made themselves, with statements made by the child.
Dr. Maggie Bruck, a psychologist and McGill University professor, had 24 mothers with preschool children take part in a study in which the children spent 20 minutes playing in a room without their mothers present. Then the mothers were taped interviewing their children about their play.
Half the mothers had been told the research was focused on mother-child conversations. The other half was told they were participating in a memory experiment and should try to remember the conversation with their child as accurately as possible. Three days later all the mothers were tested.
Even the mothers who were warned ahead of time, often incorrectly attributed statements they had made themselves, to their children. And all were unaware of how many questions they had asked to elicit information. Repeated questions, even to an older child, suggest, and often evoke, a sought after response.
I don’t assume malevolent motives. To some extent we all hear or elicit from children what we want to hear. But healthy skepticism is particularly warranted about the reported words of children caught in the middle of parental conflict. Pass the salt.