Normally when we use the phrase think of the children, it's dismissive. And rightly so. The abstract possibility of children's presence, a low-resolution notion of children's safety, has been used as a club or a gag far too often. And the worst of it is, the people who say it are not thinking of the children, or they'd stop crying wolf and save that argument for when it really mattered. (When this is can be determined by listening to the children: a related skill, and indeed a basic prerequisite.)
I've read many stories about family breakdown in the news, heard them in conversation, seen them in my wider circle of friendship and acquaintance. These stories usually center on the adults whose relationships are in trouble, but I often find myself thinking of the children, wondering how they're faring, wondering what hurt they're suffering. Wishing someone could teach them how to navigate the situations they find themselves in far too young. So many of them will cope, but at a cost—one they'll be paying interest on for years.
One thing that's gone past my Twitter stream this last week is a British family court judgment written to be accessible to the people it affects: a mother who "often finds things hard to understand", plus two children aged 10 and 12. Content warning for gaslighting. (But not, mercifully, for any neglect or physical or sexual abuse.)
I like this judge. He seems to be trying to give his intended audience the tools to deal with their situation, both explicitly and by example. So he says things like:
- People can tell lies about some things and still tell the truth about other things.
- I know that the children are loved and have been well looked after in many ways. Everyone says that the mother deserves praise for that, and praise also goes to Mr B and to Mr A when they deserve it.
- There is a good side to Mr A - everyone has a good side - and this makes it hard for H and A and their mother to see what he is really like.
- He has got inside her head and it will take time for her to recover.
He also talks about everyone in the story as people, with comprehensible motivations and reasons for their actions. The policewoman who was upset when Mr A put a video of her visit up on YouTube. Mr B, who has served time for violence and drugs offenses, but still tries to be a good father. The headteachers who have dealt with the family. The officials who exaggerated and skipped steps while reacting to the family's trip to Turkey. Even Mr A, for good and ill.
And he talks about the children in the same way, with the same language. He writes with an awareness of what makes up their lives: school, home, parents and stepparents, grandparents, vacations; he treats these things as seriously as he does terrorism, religious extremism, crime, imprisonment. In doing this, he shows the children that they matter as much as adults do. That they have, as Jo Walton would say, equal significance.
This is what thinking of the children looks like. Thinking of them as people in need of concepts and tools for dealing with the situation they're in and the people around them. Thinking about how to minimize the damage they'll suffer from these chaotic circumstances. Thinking about how to support the good relationships in their lives and reduce the impact of this bad one.
Yes, please, let's think of the children.
This is part of the sequence of Dysfunctional Families discussions. We have a few special rules, specific to the needs and nature of the conversations we have here.
- If you want to participate but don't want your posts linked to your contributions to the rest of Making Light, feel free to choose a pseudonym. But please keep it consistent within these threads, because people do care. You can create a separate (view all by) history for your pseudonym by changing your email address. And if you blow it and cross identities, give me a shout and I'll come along and tidy it up.
- On a related note, please respect the people's choice to use a pseudonym, unless they make it clear that they are willing to let the identities bleed over in people's minds.
- If you're not from a dysfunctional background, be aware that your realities and base expectations are not the default in this conversation. In particular, please don't do the "they're the only family you have" thing. Black is white, up is down, and your addressee's mother may very well be their nemesis.
- Be even more careful, charitable, and gentle than you would elsewhere on Making Light. Try to avoid "helpiness"/"hlepiness" (those comments which look helpful, but don't take account of the addressee's situation and agency). Apologize readily and sincerely if you tread on toes, even unintentionally. This kind of conversation only works because people have their defenses down.
- Never underestimate the value of a good witness. If you want to be supportive but don't have anything specific to say, people do value knowing that they are heard.
Previous posts (note that comments are closed on them to keep the conversation in one place):