Do children get to choose where to live at age 12?
In this episode, Ron and Linda talk about how common it is that divorced parents and their children believe this to be true.
But there is much more to the story...
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Linda VanValkenburg 0:00
Our next letter comes from a mother of a 12 and a half year old boy that she says is the middle child who wants to live with dad and just visit her. And she's asking for advice as to what she should do about that. She would love to say no, because she wants him to still be 50/50 at her house. But she's afraid she's gonna lose him even if she says yes.
Ron Gore 0:35
Well... So a bunch of questions come up, I guess-- how many children does she have? At least 3, I suppose.
Linda VanValkenburg 0:44
Ron Gore 0:45
Are they all still at home? How do the kids get along? Sometimes maybe the 12 and a half year old doesn't get along well with the older one or the younger one. The middle kid position is often difficult. And-- "lose", you know, there's some catastrophic language in there, because I don't read it to be saying, he's not gonna come over at all, just that he wants to live primarily with dad. But you do have that concern, I guess of a slippery slope to where it just diminishes and diminishes.
Linda VanValkenburg 1:23
Well, I hear a lot of kids say, I want to-- I hear that at this age, I can decide where I live. And I don't ever have to go back to the other house. They will say that, or they will say I just want to be where I want to be when I want to be there. Which is really confusing for the parents, because they never know when the kid wants to be home, you know?
Ron Gore 1:44
Well, and I've had several cases, I'm trying to think in my head of how many, that were modifications of custody orders, which were predicated upon my client telling me that the child has made a really well framed, reasoned request to live primarily with them. And then by the time you get to a hearing, he goes in and talks to the judge, if they do, and the judge is like, "no, he wants 50/50, or he wants to keep it like it is." In fact, I will say that's more common than uncommon. So these kids-- one, this is the very reason why they don't have the ability to decide where they live. In Oklahoma, at least where we are, once the child turns 12, the rule is that it is presumptive, that they possess the maturity necessary to express an opinion that the court should take into consideration as one of all of the factors in determining what custody and visitation should be.
Linda VanValkenburg 2:56
And how that gets spun by the child when they're talking to me is-- well, the court says at 12, I get to decide where I live. And they don't - I've even had much younger, I've had as young as a three year old tell me that at 12, he gets to decide. Now I wonder how he figured that out?
Ron Gore 3:17
Well, those three year olds are pretty sophisticated with their research of case law and statute. That's the same view that parents have. That's how parents hear it too. I don't think I've ever had a client come and say to me, "Oh, I understand that my child is presumed to be old enough to give an expression of a preference, that's going to be one factor among all the factors." It's always like, well, they're 12 they get to choose, right? So somehow that's inserted into the common wisdom. And it's kind of what everybody wants to believe, I guess. But in my mind, it's just so unfair. You know, I had a situation where my mother passed away. My parents got divorced when I was four. My father got remarried at five. I had a stepmother who I still have--I love her very much. And my mother died when I was 13. And then when I was 16, one day, my father and stepmother come and tell me that they were separating. And I had to decide right then and there, if I was gonna stay in the house with my stepmother and my brother, my half-brother, who's ten years younger than I was, so he was like seven or go with my dad. My sister was already away to college, my older sister, so I was a senior in high school. So I was either 16 or 17 because I was a year ahead. And I just remember how traumatic that situation was. So it infuriates me actually, when I hear that people are trying to make or encourage a 12 year old or a 13 year old to make this kind of decision. It just actually does infuriate me because they have no understanding, I think, of the potential pain it's going to cause these kids. And I don't think many of these adults are emotionally sophisticated enough to take that child's statement of preference and throw it into the ocean and let it go away. They're gonna hold on to it.
Linda VanValkenburg 3:29
Right. I've seen many cases where the child has told each of the parents that they want to be with them. Hmm, I wonder why? Because each of the parents has asked the kid, "where do you want to live?" And I like to tell kids-- what if it wasn't an option where you live? Because right now you're seeing both your parents, you live with each of them. You have a bedroom at both houses. You have things that you enjoy around you at both houses. So, what why is it suddenly an option? And of course, they always tell me which parent or if both are routinely telling them it's an option.
Ron Gore 6:32
And how do they feel about it?
Linda VanValkenburg 6:34
Most of them feel-- the younger ones, I'd say the ones that are under 12 that are being told at 12 they get to make the decision, are very leery of making the decision and don't think they should be. I love it when I've got a younger one that'll say, I don't think I'm old enough for that, Linda. I don't think I will be at 12. Or they say, but I love both of my parents, why should I have to choose between them? When they make a statement like that? Or when they say I just want it to be fair, or the same or equal? Those are the terms I've heard jillions of times over the last 30 years from children as to their preference. That really is a child's preference, unless a parent is telling them routinely that it's possible for it to be another way.
Ron Gore 7:28
And tell me if I'm wrong. I feel like the reason that kids focus so much on fairness is because they live in a world without control. And so what you're doing is you're completely up ending their paradigm by suddenly giving them control which they never have the ability really to wield well, because from my perspective, and having looked at these, a child is always going to if they have to, they think they have to make a choice, unless there's trauma being done to a sibling-- sometimes they'll stick up for a sibling. But most often, they're going to hurt the one that they think will forgive them and love them anyway.
Linda VanValkenburg 8:13
Yes, the one they feel the safest with the one they are the most sure of their relationship. And I've even had kids tell me that at much older than 12, they have decided that they want to--I remember a 14 year old that told me and her mother-- because her mother was just like this one saying it stings so much, you know that the kid has asked this. This mother was grieving the loss of her daughter, when the daughter didn't want to stay at dad's and never come back. She just wanted to visit. But she wanted to try living at her father's house because her father had been pretty much absent for part of her life. And then other parts, you know, like she said, Linda, if I didn't call him to say, "Hey, can I come over this weekend?" I might not hear from him for six, eight weeks. And so she said, I literally want to live there where he expects me to be there every night except for what I'm at mom's, just to see what he's like, will he pay more attention to me if I'm there? I've had quite a few kids through the years have said, you know, I want to see if they pay more attention to me if I'm really there. And they get usually quite hurt by the fact that it doesn't wind up like that. They don't get more attention when they're there all the time.
Ron Gore 9:41
There's just so much in there. So that mother who was grieving. Really, she was getting the biggest, I love you and I'm so grateful for how you've been for me from that little girl.
Linda VanValkenburg 9:57
And I tried to definitely drive that point home to her, and so did the daughter. I mean, it was just beautiful. I thought how the daughter was explaining this to the mother that, you know, all her life, the daughter didn't know how she amounted to her father and how he felt about her. And this was her last ditch effort to figure that out before she leaves home for good and goes away to college and all that, you know, and that was just her her way, adolescent way, of trying to figure it out. It wasn't that she was mad at her mom, or even doing any of those typical age related things, mother-daughter. I told the mother, I'm not a betting person, but I bet she'll be back in four to six months, or earlier. And sure enough, about four months, and the mother emailed me and said she wants to come back, but I don't want her back. And then I found out that the mother had at a garage sale, and sold everything in the daughter's bedroom. The mother had moved exercise equipment, and kind of made it into her own arts and crafts room and so forth, you know, for doing her thing. And, of course, the girl found that out because the little siblings that were going over to dad's house had told her what happened to her bedroom.
Ron Gore 11:24
So the girl wasn't coming back at all?
Linda VanValkenburg 11:26
She totally felt abandoned then by mother.
Ron Gore 11:32
So when the girl had started increasing and living primarily with Father--increasing her time, she wasn't coming back and visiting Mom?
Linda VanValkenburg 11:42
Mother did not allow it. She wanted to...
Ron Gore 11:44
Even from the jump?
Linda VanValkenburg 11:45
Yes. Mother's hurt feelings meant that she did not want further hurt by having the girl at her home.
Linda VanValkenburg 11:58
So she just wrote her off. She decided-- I guess I'm an empty nester as far as that kid is concerned. Wow.
Linda VanValkenburg 12:08
It is heartbreaking.
Ron Gore 12:10
So did the dad eventually step up?
Linda VanValkenburg 12:14
She remained with dad, but still was not happy at all with the relationship between them. So no, he didn't really step up either. It was like she found what she thought she would find at dad's house. He confirmed it for her. And then she didn't have mom to go back to.
Ron Gore 12:33
But she found what she thought she'd never find at mom's house. Otherwise, she wouldn't have ever...
Linda VanValkenburg 12:39
That's why it's so important for parents, when they hear this kind of thing-- that's the main thing I thought about when I read that. You know, the mother said I wasn't expecting this conversation and it stings so much. Of course it does, and like you said, you should take it as "I am the safe harbor for this child to return to." And if you know that you can come back to it, then you will be able to try things on the other side of the fence to just see what it's like.
Ron Gore 13:11
And in that case, the that you were just talking about, there were younger siblings. So not only was she cutting off the older child, she was telegraphing to the younger children that you're disposable.
Linda VanValkenburg 13:25
And this is what will happen to you if you hurt me in this way.
Ron Gore 13:29
Right, so she went from what appears to have been a mainly emotionally safe person. To incredibly unsafe. And also, what is she saying about the older child when she's home alone with younger children? And what's that doing to their sibling relationship?
Linda VanValkenburg 13:47
And this happens in so many of our cases, because I've heard kids that do choose to be at the other parent's home that they haven't been in as often. Then with those younger siblings, like you just said, they feel like they, whether those younger kids go back and forth or whether they're from another relationship with mother, they feel like they are ganged up on, they are persona non grata when they do come back to the mother's house. It is really awkward. And of course, then that makes them not want to be there as often. It's just a-- Oh, it's awful!
Ron Gore 14:34
That is what came to mind is when especially with boys in middle school or high school when they're first dating, and they're too chicken to break up with their girlfriend and so they-- and I'm not going to say that I never did this. They act like a turd. So that the girl will want to break up with them so that they don't have to do it right. That's what this is.
Linda VanValkenburg 14:59
Yeah, it is. and kind of I'm gonna hurt you before you have a chance to hurt me, or I'm gonna hurt you as bad as you've hurt me. Yeah, it's really horrible.
Ron Gore 15:08
So is that a self esteem thing with mom? Is it that she just, she couldn't stand the prick to her, her vision of herself. Because I find that that's one of the biggest things in my cases. And especially with men, but also with --no, I'm not even gonna say that. It's equally with men and women. How we view ourselves as people and our self esteem as individuals and parents are the biggest drivers of our interactions, I think, whether with coparents, and also the children. And so a lot of the focus-- I've been known in my practice to take on clients who lots of folks don't want to take on, and one of the things that I focus on is trying to build up their self esteem and capacity as parents, because even if they don't get the decision that they want from the court, they're gonna be a better parent, they're gonna be a happier person. And they'll be establishing that foundation for the child once they turn 18 to typically have a much better relationship with them, than they would have otherwise. And so this, to me just screams out a situation in which the mom, her self esteem is so fragile, that she can only lash out.
Linda VanValkenburg 16:34
Well, and I know that mother in particularly, had told me that she felt like she was being punished for all she had sacrificed and done for this child through the years-- that the child obviously did not appreciate any of that or respect her for it.
Ron Gore 16:55
So she had it all twisted about what she was doing, and why, all those years.
Linda VanValkenburg 17:00
And part of this, too, I think is very interesting that the reasons the child gave to mother for wanting to be at dad's was that dad was still in the original home. And his pets were there..
Ron Gore 17:17
This is in the Reddit post...
Linda VanValkenburg 17:20
...the original one, yes. And he was more relaxed at dad's and his friends could come over there. And that is something that I do see often-- is if either of the parents stays in the original family home, the kids are frequently happier there as they become adolescents, because part of their job as adolescents is to differentiate themselves from their family of origin and go more toward their peers. And so if those peers happen to be people you've grown up with in the neighborhood, and you've always been friends, and you still are, then you would love to be close to where those people are, versus maybe where one of the parents has moved to where there are not very many.
Ron Gore 18:10
Sure, it's safer to experiment with your new role when you're anchored with long standing relationships.
Linda VanValkenburg 18:18
And they're probably people they're at school with, and so forth, if that person's in that, because frequently at least around here, you can be at one school district on one side of the street, and a different one on the other side of the street. And, so, frequently, I hear that one parent lives in one school district and one in another, so they definitely don't want to move to the other side, because they'll have to change schools.
Ron Gore 18:42
Well, one thing that this person wrote in this Reddit post that I really appreciated was-- she said that I'm reminding myself that he's 12 and a half. He's been through divorce as a child, and I haven't,
Linda VanValkenburg 18:54
yes, that was powerful
Ron Gore 18:56
That's huge. To me, it says a bunch of different things at once. It says, he's in that age, you know, kids are selfish, you know. They're thinking about them even more so than adults. We're all selfish, but it's definitely so that's 12 and a half. But also, he's been through a divorce. So he sees the world through a whole different prism. He sees his relationship with his parents entirely differently, because the parents have already left. You're not ripping away from someone when they've already left you. They're not together anymore. You've got two different households, and you've grown up for some period of time, being gone for a week or being gone for ever how many days. And so it's a very different thing. I feel it's like, I don't know-- this is coming to my head. I don't know if this makes any sense or not. It's like, instead of like ripping something off that's attached to you-- it's like you're just pulling something off that's just sitting there. So for example, when you're going from one house to another, you're not so enmeshed in that one house that you're like bound into it. And it's a destructive process to go from one house to the other, when you're routinely going from one home to the other in like a shared custody situation. If you were only ever in that house and only ever with that parent, it would feel like a much more destructive act to say, I want to leave and go to the other place. But you're already going back and forth. So, to me, I think that's what she's maybe referring to there.
Linda VanValkenburg 20:31
And there is always with every child I've ever talked to it, no matter how many books have been written about, I have two houses, I have two homes, I have, those kinds of things to try to equalize things. No matter how much the time is equalized with whatever visitation plan, every child I've ever talked to identifies one house as home. They'll say, well, at home--Blah, blah blah blah blah-- I'm gonna go to my mom's this weekend,
Ron Gore 21:06
Even if they have equal time? And what's the basis? Is it primarily the home they were in before the separation?
Linda VanValkenburg 21:12
It's just like she says here in this Reddit post, that the original home has a lot to do with it. And if neither parent is still in their original home, which has to happen sometimes because neither one of them could afford it maybe by themselves. Little children especially will frequently draw when I'm asking them to draw both sides of their family situation...I'll never forget, I had one that drew a line down the middle of the page and drew the old family home on the middle of the line up in the air. And then she drew the respective people on either side of the line after the divorce, and she said, yeah, I really missed the yellow house. That's where we were all together. And so they kind of enshrine that house as the home that they were all in together.
Ron Gore 22:09
So no one lived in her home anymore?
Linda VanValkenburg 22:12
Not in that picture. But if somebody does, oh, it's really powerful that the child does feel much more comfortable being in that home.
Ron Gore 22:22
So if they've split, if neither one has the original home, they each have new homes, and the child has really firmly established one of them as home. That's really powerful, right?
Linda VanValkenburg 22:32
Yes. And it might not sound good to a lot of fathers, but unfortunately for them, many, many, many small children especially I'd say 10 and under identified mom as home.
Ron Gore 22:46
Well, that makes total sense to me. Because most guys don't really build homes. I won't say his name, but my best friend in the entire world is the exception to this rule. He lives by himself and his place is a home. He's got all the knickknacks. He's got all the all the little things that folks do to houses to make them homes, he's got.
Linda VanValkenburg 23:13
I tell dads that they haven't really feathered their nest. They may have bought a nest, but it's still pretty empty. I remember one father I had to just ride him every other week when I saw his child. First question I'd ask the child was, "Do you have a bed yet?" This was a father that was quite wealthy enough to buy furniture, but it took him every year-- I had to go back for court and actually see when was the first time I asked this guy to buy his kid a bed? He was having his son who was almost his size by this point sleep in the same bed as dad because he just didn't want to buy another bed. And he had a two-bedroom apartment, but he was using the second bedroom as an office. I said Good grief, you can put a day bed in there or you know, any kind-- just buy a bed! And then when he finally about a year later bought the bed, because court was coming up, he didn't buy sheets, or a comforter. It was definitely one of those "if you build it, he will come" because the kid kept going Linda, I'm tired of going over there and sleeping with my dad. It's very uncomfortable. I need more space. And the kids do need some sort of identified space that is theirs. That is just their's to decorate... Don't underestimate how important that is. But a lot of dads don't think it's important because they don't want to do it for themselves.
Ron Gore 24:46
Yeah, I can tell you right now that if I were split from Rebecca, and I had to go get my own place. It would look like a like Motel Six probably inside. I could get the nicest house on the outside and the inside-- not to denigrate Motel Six-- but, it would just look like a, it would just be cold. I'm not good at that kind of thing. I'm the guy who comes into the house and there's a new dining room table-- true story. I did not notice. I don't think I noticed for a couple of weeks. So I just don't, I just don't notice those things.
Linda VanValkenburg 25:25
Whereas girls obsess about that dining room table for weeks before we go get it.
Ron Gore 25:29
Correct. That is correct. And our old dining room table is actually right here. And it's so different from the new one that it's impossible to think that I could have missed it. But I don't know what that is about men and women why we tend to be different that way. But bottom line is, that is why. I mean, you grow up in a house with a person who feathers the nest, as you say, and then you don't have it and it feels sparse and cold. So it's understandable.
Linda VanValkenburg 26:05
And not every father is bad at that, just like you talked about your friend. I had one of my favorite couples that became exes. But they had two little boys who were very athletic. And the kids were the most enthusiastic I had ever seen children in a divorce situation, about the two homes they were going to have. They sold the family home and both parents got a different place. And both boys were very excited about the themes they were going to decorate, which were also cool for boys to have these themes that they were going to decorate. I remember one of them was going to have one of our local colleges, you know, it was all going to be crimson and cream for the college in his room at dad's house, because he was also an OU fan. And then at mom's house, it was going to be an ocean theme. So he got a lot of input to how it was going to be at each home.
Ron Gore 27:18
It sounds like Mom and Dad talked about that too.
Linda VanValkenburg 27:20
Ron Gore 27:20
Right-- So they worked together to make sure-- well, that was really great.
Linda VanValkenburg 27:25
Yes, and as far as I know, they're still that kind of parents. And that appeals to the child having some sort of ownership and authority over something, you know, when it comes to this one, like you said, they don't really have much of any kind of say so about it.
Ron Gore 27:46
Right... And I've never understood parents who refuse to give their children the control that they can handle. Because if you don't give them any, they're gonna grasp for it wherever they can, and it may be inappropriate.
Linda VanValkenburg 27:59
And I think sometimes if all things are fairly equal, it's good to just say, you know, it's not really an option that I know, you may have heard this about the 12 year old thing. But you know, in your case, especially, I can't imagine the judge taking everything into account, which is really the way it is, and thinking that either of your parents would deserve less time with you. And when you do explain it like that to children, many times, they're like, Oh, I hadn't thought about it like that, or they don't realize...I had a 12 year old girl one time-- that she could do that bob thing with her head that I'll never figure out how to do-- she came in with her head doing that telling me how disgusted she was with the judge who was in his 70s, that he did not take her word for where she should be living at 12. And I said, Well, that's because he had to take a lot of other things into account. But she was just beside herself angry with the judge, because she had been built up to think that she would just go in and speak to this old man and he would decide to do what she wanted him to do.
Ron Gore 29:16
Right. And the thing is, there are always unexpected consequences of any decision, especially a decision that large. And if you're, if you're trying to, in your mind, empower your child to make that decision, you're also empowering them to take the consequences. They're not mature enough to make the decision and they're not mature enough to take what they're gonna perceive to be the consequences. So you're just setting them up for failure.
Linda VanValkenburg 29:43
And sometimes too, I know this doesn't come up maybe too often, but it's important to remember that, and I try to always include this in my testimony-- especially if it is a situation, but at any time I always try to make sure that the court knows who the children are-- that they're not just a human of a particular age, but that they are maybe particularly bright for their age, they're in gifted classes, or they're quite articulate because of this and that, or, in a case, I had a while back where the child had quite a few learning disabilities, and even at 16, he did not have the ability to make such a decision to weigh the pros and cons and really make such a decision. And in speaking to me, he would flip flop back and forth between which parent, usually, depending on who brought him in my door that day, which parent he wanted to be with.
Ron Gore 30:50
Well, let's wrap this thing up. So if you were talking to this mom, who brought this scenario to you, what would you leave her with?
Linda VanValkenburg 31:04
I would want to talk to the child about how, perhaps that mom's house could be a little more inviting. Maybe his friends can't walk over, but maybe mom needs to bring the friends over to her house more often. Sometimes, there are very specific things that kids would like to have at both houses like the PS5, where you know, if something like that could be done at both houses, the child would feel more comfortable there. The other thing might be that, it might not be exactly equal time, which is interesting when kids tell me-- they'll say, I think I want to be at the other house more. And so I'll say, Okay, let's look at what your current-- and this would be older kids-- let's look at what your current schedule is. And then I'll say So exactly what days out of these days that are your mother's, what days would you want to be at fathers? And by the time they practically speaking, start looking at that. They're like, No, I really don't want that day over there. No, I really don't want that day to change either. And pretty soon they realize they want it to stay the way it is. But somebody has been saying, you want more time at my house, don't you?
Ron Gore 32:29
Yeah. And sometimes, like you were saying, sometimes, like in a case like this and getting that second PS5 may magically make the others go away. I've seen that happen too-- literally with a video game console.
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