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Turning Parents Into People

The intention ‘to work in the best interest of children’ is a cornerstone of family mediation. It is both perfectly appropriate, and also extremely seductive. Appropriate because in the context of divorce and separation, children deserve to be heard. Seductive because ‘working in the best interests of children’ is a belief nearly impossible to question or challenge.

At no point am I saying that the needs of children don’t deserve a central place within family mediation. What seems less open to exploration is the impact this particular idea has on how we as mediators think about and shape our practice. In asking what this assumption promotes, we also need to ask what it might obscure. As the interests of children are pushed to the forefront, what might be consigned to the background?

In part, my query stems from a fairly recent personal experience. I attended a seminar where the presenter and author of a widely read book on family mediation, asserted that unless parents are willing to put their children’s needs before their own, then mediation shouldn’t go ahead. When asked whether mediation is also concerned with the needs of adults, both the presenter and the majority of participants seemed unable to make sense of the question.

As mediators we know that people arrive at our door in varying degrees of intactness. The dislocation of their lives can manifest as a sense of confusion and bewilderment. Divorce and separation can be especially traumatic to the extent that our identities have been ruptured – where the histories and habits that defined who we were have been broken. We need to be pieced back together again. That we long for some sense of secure definition should come as no surprise.

In many cases, this is precisely what the children provide. While we may have failed as partners, we still have our children. The role of parent has both meaning and status. Our children need us – and we need them. Which helps explain why people are often so eager to burrow back into their parental role.

I do not mean to come across as dismissive. Parenting is hugely important. As parents we can make an enormous difference in the impact that divorce and separation has on our children. We have a clear responsibility to minimise any negative fallout. Using mediation as a way of discussing, negotiating and reaching agreements about how best to raise healthy children should not be underplayed.

Equally, for many people in the midst of relational breakdown, the voice of the child is one of the few things that can penetrate their pain and confusion. Family mediators are skilled at ‘bringing the child into the room’ – either through direct consultation or by invoking their presence in more metaphorical ways. And while the accepting of parental responsibilities is not always without its hardships (financial & otherwise), it can be easy to overlook the palpable sense of relief as people in pain are transformed into parents who care.

It is understandable why a client undergoing the disorientation of divorce might want to seek security in the stability of the parental role. In reaffirming their right to parent, clients can once more feel solid ground beneath their feet. The transformation from person to parent appears to serve them well. Nor are they the only ones to benefit. I believe that mediators also derive a significant benefit from this metamorphosis.

In the first instance, turning a person into a parent allows the mediator to fulfil what many see as their ‘prime directive’ – to work towards the best interests of the children. This is ground we are familiar with. As practitioners, we know how to leverage parental responsibility and parental guilt. What we as mediators seem to feel far less comfortable with is offering any clear views on what constitutes the ‘best interests of adults’.

This should come as no surprise. As far as I’m aware, there is no consensual agreement in family mediation as to what constitutes ‘grownup-ness’ in the context of divorce and separation. What does it mean to behave as an ‘adult’ in the midst of conflict and family breakdown? Are we happy to let people leave mediation having reached agreement about their children, but with no greater capacity to cope with or make sense of conflictual situations?

Mediation is not therapy. I am not arguing that it should be. Working in the best interests of adults is not about making them feel better. Divorce and separation hurt. The role of the mediator is not to deny this hurt, or try to make it go away. The role of the mediator is to help people made decisions about their lives.

As mediators, we encourage clients to make informed decisions, though the exact definition of ‘informed’ is open to debate. If it is a case of having access to the relevant information, financial or otherwise, then I think this definition is far too narrow. An informed choice presupposes that we not only have information, but the capacity to make sense of that information. Asking people to make major life choices while their humanity is constrained may fall outside the boundaries of ‘informed’.

I am not suggesting that every client will be able to consciously take hold of their struggle and pain in such a way that they don’t close down, don’t become less human. But unless we hold onto this as a real possibility we will confine ourselves to doing work that offers less than it could. While some clients need safety; others may need to be supported in their willingness to risk.

Family mediators appear very reluctant to make assertions about how adults should conduct their lives. If we did indeed express a view, the risk is that we would be stepping onto moral or ethical ground. This might seem to challenge our allegiance to impartiality and neutrality. And yet, adopting an impartial stance does not preclude mediators from acting as moral agents.

Mediation is a moral activity. Insofar as we have a picture of what people want, need and are capable of, we are engaged with moral questions. As important as parenting certainly is, it may be equally important to remember that people are more than the roles they currently occupy. All of us share a need to make sense of the totality of our lives, both when things are running smoothly and when they aren’t. The moral component of mediation is in seeking to remain fully human when it would be easier to do otherwise.

We cannot afford to pretend that the ‘size’ of our clients doesn’t matter. Agreements that parcel us as parents rather than people promote the belief that divorce and separation are too horrible to encounter in the fullness of who we are. Society does not benefit by shrinking people into their comfort zones.

Ultimately our children need to be parented by people who demonstrate the capacity to stay human when times are good and when times get tough. As mediators, we can support this need by continually seeking to turn parents back into people. To do otherwise is to do a disservice to our clients, their children, and the world we collectively inhabit.


Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs has been mediating for the past 23 years across a range of disputes, including family, community, workplace and civil/commercial. He appreciates the fact that even after all this time, he is still quite capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong – it means that he has more… MORE >

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