I spoke yesterday with the guardian ad litem of a 13-year-old. Only child. (The 13-year-old that is; I didn’t ask if the GAL has siblings.) Out of control. Angry, depressed, acting out. Stealing beer. Vaping pot. Lying. School refusal. School failure. Doesn’t leave his room or do chores. Becomes verbally abusive and physically confrontational when told to respect curfew or do homework. No conversation with parents except to say, “F*** you, mom, I hope you die, you f***ing b****.
Same old thing, believe it or not. There is a whole cohort of these kids, tons of them, a generation lost in space. Entire programs are devoted to working with adolescents who present as out-of-control, without limits, disrespectful, behavior problems. Throw in some pot and alcohol–yes, at 13–and the possibilities for danger and sadness are exponentiated.
It’s easy to work backwards, to assign causality based on factors that go together. Mom was too strict; dad was too permissive; violent video games should have been forbidden; too much competition; not enough time for sports. The list is long. I wish I could say there were one perfect prediction that explained where these miserable kids and icky behaviors come from.
One variable I couldn’t help noticing was the number of court appearances. Mom and dad had sued each other over child custody, child support, alimony, and everything else you can think of. There were court dates and continuances, changes of venues, hiring and firing of attorneys, oceans of motions. They had been fighting for 11 years, since their son was two. The courts only appoint a Guardian ad Litem if the parents have trouble working out the simplest details–who is going to pick up the kid from school, for example.
I’m no therapist, but I have to wonder: were Mr. and Mrs. Fightfightfight trying to work out some residual issues by beating each other up through the courts? Might they still be connected to each other in some way? Could there be an emotional attachment? Because if you are truly “over” someone, wouldn’t you just let it go, walk away, wish them well?
Which brings me to the topic of my musings this Tuesday: Do you love your kids more than you hate your ex?
Here’s one way to get divorced, suggested to me by a family court judge who had seen his share of ugly: Mrs. Agreeable makes two lists of all the marital assets–cars, retirement accounts, silverware, frying pans, every item. Mr. Agreeable chooses the list he prefers.
This method is based on the old “I cut, you choose” way of dividing a brownie. Mrs. Agreeable, knowing that she could end up with either list, will work hard to make sure that both inventories are equal. Mr. Agreeable, not wanting to pay tens of thousands of dollars to his family lawyer, will choose one list or the other.
Of course, few families choose this sensible path. The usual course of events involves fighting over each and every trivial, inexpensive piece of dreck acquired over the marriage. The family court judge talked about presiding over two attorneys arguing on behalf of their clients about a frying pan–fair market value, maybe $40. At $600/hour for each attorney plus $300/hour for the forensic accountant plus $400 for the mediator, the issue has to be resolved in under one and a quarter minutes to be economically viable. I’m guessing that the disputation lasted more than 75 seconds.
Indeed, I’m estimating that the arguments, filing of briefs, conversations, and general madness about the $40 frying pan took around three hours. Which means I could have had Jeff Bezos, or perhaps one of his employees, deliver no fewer than 142 frying pans to the courthouse and still come out ahead.
I remember reading somewhere that children learn what they live. The children of folks who fight pointlessly over a frying pan will learn that their parents are bad at arithmetic. Just kidding! The children of folks who pay attorneys to argue for three hours over a $40 frying pan will learn that it’s never a good plan to say, “Yeah, okay, let’s do it your way this time” or “maybe you’re right.”
To be fair to Mr. and Mrs. Fightfightfight, divorce is never easy. “Nobody ever kisses and says goodbye.” But taking 47% instead of 50% can be a good call if you look down the road a year or three. There will always be opportunities to cut the baby in half. Alternatively, there will be chances to say, “your mother and I agree. We live in different homes but the rules are the same.”
The hardest advice for divorcing couples to hear is, “If you love your child more than you hate your ex, let it go.” But if being conciliatory lessens the odds that your 13-year-old child never leaves his room except to tell you to do that which is anatomically impossible, there may be an advantage to accepting a bad deal in the short term for a big payoff down the road.
Where do the “f*** you, mom, it’s all your fault, you f***ing b*****” kids come from? Smarter folks than this author talk about bio-social profiles. Psychological and neurological explanations are invoked to explain how a kid becomes a 13-year-old wrecking ball seemingly incapable of conversation let alone compromise. My insight for this week involves simple genetics and arithmetic. Here’s the math: the kids are half your ex. When you insult the other parent, you debase your child as well. Half as much is still plenty. The kids have heard you say, “your other parent is lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.” It’s a short step to “f*** you, mom, I hope you die.”
The other side of the street is preferable and involves no explanations. Imagine an adult child who says, “My parents never put us kids in the middle of their divorce. I’m sure they had some tough times but we never knew about their arguments. I love them both and respect their sacrifice.”
I have to imagine that Mr. and Mrs. Fightfightfight would pay a million dollars for validating words like those. For that matter, they might even pay a million dollars to have a kid who leaves his room to sit down for family dinner without telling his parents to go f*** themselves. And speaking of arithmetic, a million dollars is enough to have Jeff Bezos–or one of his employees–bring you 25,000 frying pans. Which will you choose–venting your spleen about what an imperfect person your ex is–or a line of trucks delivering cookware to your home? In addition to all those frying pans, having a pleasant child who knows how to say, “sounds good to me” is a bonus.