Q: My ex and I have four children. We are separating and thinking about splitting the children – two go with him, two go with me. It's just too much for us to try to raise four kids by ourselves. We have three girls, ages 15, 14, and 8, and a son age 11. We can't agree which ones should go with which parent. Do you have some suggestions? What's good ex-etiquette?
A: Good ex-etiquette is good behavior after divorce or separation. That starts with what's in the best interest of the children, or better said, Good Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 1, "Put the children" first." Although most courts take the view that siblings should stay together, they will advocate a split if the parents request it – but they don't take the request lightly. Splitting the kids is not regarded as in the child's best interest.
Let's take a look at why ... Put yourself in your children's shoes (Ex-etiquette for parents rule No. 7, "Use empathy when problem solving.") It's difficult enough to deal with your parents' break-up, let alone having to break-up with your siblings, as well. You may not realize that's what you're proposing, but it is. The most consistent relationship after a divorce is not the relationship between parent and child, but between siblings. They may share bedrooms, maybe even beds, and walk to and from school together. Even with an equal custody split, children of divorce only see each parent half the time, but they see each other all the time as they go back and forth between homes. Of course, a breakup uproots the kids, but the change you're proposing uproots your children from their entire life – their home, their parents, and their siblings, (possibly their school and friends) leaving them nothing familiar on which to rely when the rug is pulled out from under them.
That said, if you are committed to splitting up your children, what I see most is around 13-15 a child begins to gravitate to the like-gendered parent. Girls like to be with mom and boys like to be with dad. At that point, they feel they have more in common, particularly if they weren't raised predominantly by the like-gendered parent. The primary parent often questions the change. He or she can't believe their little baby no longer wants to be with them and blames it on the other parent sabotaging the relationship. Although this could be true, most of the time, it's just biology. Therefore, your son and youngest daughter would go with dad, the older two girls with you – but don't be surprised if your children feel rejected by the parent they don't see often, particularly your youngest daughter.
Sometimes things like finances after the break-up dictate this sort of decision. If that's the case, look for ways to keep the children interacting with each other on a regular basis, like adopting a parenting plan that allows all four to be with one parent and see each other on the weekends.
It's time to consult a professional who knows your kids firsthand and often an ear for the change you propose. That would be good ex-etiquette.
(Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation," and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website www.exetiquette.com at firstname.lastname@example.org.)