Q: How old do children need to be before they don't have to go see the other parent if they don't want to? My kids are telling me they don't want to go see their dad, and now that they're older, I'm thinking about honoring their wishes.
A: It's very seductive when a child starts to balk at going to their other parent's home. What divorced parents hear is that their child would rather stay with them and they start to believe the child prefers them. But there may be more to the story.
When a child starts to complain, rather than saying something like, "Your time with your dad (or mom) is very important, it becomes, "I know you don't want to go, but it's only for a couple of days. You'll be home soon." At face value that sounds like a parent trying to help a fussy kid put things into perspective, but in actuality, it's openly trivializing the child's time with his or her other parent and singles out one "home" over the other. It will not make your child more secure if you teach him or her to think their time with their other parent is less important than their time at "home."
The law regarding a child's "right" to choose which parent to live with is murky, and varies considerably by state and jurisdiction. Although not a standard by any means, many states have begun to give consideration to a child's declaration of custodial preference when children reach their teen years. In these cases a judge, or a mediator who reports back to the judge, interviews the child. The judge then decides how much weight to give to the child's wishes.
In short, there is no specific "age" when a child can say with whom they want to live. In most cases it's the reasons behind the desire to live with one parent or the other that matters more than the child's age.
We are not sure why a normally conscientious parent who would not think twice about making their child do their chores or finish their homework, would consider letting the child do exactly what he or she wants to do when it comes to visiting their other parent.
A child has the right to be with both parents and unless you believe the child is in danger, it's your obligation to abide by your custody agreement and support the other parent's parenting time. Even at that point, keeping the child home based on a whim is not good ex-etiquette.
As parents, of course, we always want to protect our kids, but there are agencies to help you. When you suspect a problem, call Child Protective Services or the police and ask them intercede. CPS will conduct an immediate investigation and if it is determined that there is a problem, they may suggest visitation stop. This is particularly important if there is suspected abuse of any kind. You need as much documentation as possible.
Jann Blackstone-Ford and Sharyl Jupe, authors of "Ex-Etiquette for Parents," are the founders of Bonus Families.