Book Review: Keeping Kids Out of the Middle

Imagine if children young and old could speak in keen, poignant words about how parental conflict affects them - in terms that adults would not only understand, but get their attention as well. Then imagine that those words have been channeled into a book by a child psychologist who’s surely put in his years consoling those same children, as they attempt to heal from the wounds inadvertently inflicted upon their parent’s battleground.

In “Keeping Kids Out of the Middle: Child-Centered Parenting in the Midst of Conflict, Separation, and Divorce” Benjamin Garber, PhD covers some volatile territory meant for parents that are still married, but arguing; separated, or divorced — and their step-parents.

Some of the content might not sit well with readers, but in a way, that’s the point — to spur us on to honest self-assessment and modify our behavior where needed. We’ve all heard, ad nauseum, about how important it is to act cooperatively in the best interests of the children when a family splits up (or is on the verge). But aside from some vague notions about WHY this is so important, how many of us actually know HOW?

Garber shows you.

He starts with the basics of good co-parenting, then helps us understand what good and bad parenting feel like from the child’s perspective, a good incentive to change…. In the section called “Not All Co-Parents Are Created Equal,” I appreciated the fact that he broke down co-parenting issues in terms of personality differences, but also context.

For instance, as the parent-on-duty during the week, the mother or stepmom (as is the norm) is likely saddled by the need to impose more rules and consequences, due to school, homework, bedtime, etc. If the child simply visits their father’s home on weekends, the context for their relationship is necessarily looser and lighter, and so is the child’s experience in that household.

The stepmom or mom may feel like the nagging shrew. And the weekend parent might feel secretly guilty and selfish. This imbalance can subtly feed into the potential alienation of the child from one parent, or the other, over the years, and that’s where the story really starts to get sad…. From the summary:

“When co-parents conflict, their kids get caught in the middle. They become ‘adultified,’ infantilized, and alienated. They’re made into messengers and spies, implicitly forced to grow up too fast or to remain needy for much too long.”

So what to do?

There’s plenty of information on lot of information on co-creating a child-centered parenting plan. Not one centered around the children, with them in charge, but one that places the needs of a healthy child before even their own wishes.

The Introduction says it better than I can. Garber explains:

  • how to better distinguish understand and meet your child’s needs.
  • how to distinguish between your child’s needs and your child’s wants.
  • how to keep your child’s needs front and center, apart from your own.
  • how to establish and improve consistency and communications with your co-parent(s).
  • how to continue to meet your children’s needs as your family changes.
  • (and perhaps most importantly), how to take the high road every time, even if you believe that your parenting partner does not.

I can already hear a chorus of readers objecting, saying, “How in the hell am I supposed to cooperatively create a parenting plan with my ex, or the ‘other woman’ when we can barely even talk to each other in the first place?”

To which I say, read the chapter called “The Child’s Experience of Adult Conflict” and take a closer look at what ongoing tension between the parents, and the lack of a unified safety net does to a child’s inner foundation. Or skip ahead and read “How Children React.” Use this information to motivate the other parent to rise above your own problems and focus on what your child needs.

If all else fails, bolster your own familial system to provide stronger parenting support (and make sure to distinguish between what you need as a parent and what your child needs from you).

There’s much of value here. I myself plan on going back through the book again for a closer read.

I would highly recommend this book to couples in conflict, couples undergoing a separation or divorce (there’s great information on how to communicate during both of these situations) and especially, blended families struggling with parenting issues.

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

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