Issues of Joint Custody

Q: My sister is a divorced mother of six who is having a difficult time with joint custody and her general relationship with her children. For as long as I can remember, she has always experienced mood swings, and often doesn’t listen to my parenting suggestions. She is attentive to the children when she is with them, but doesn’t put much advance thought or planning into their time together. Her children are supposed to live with her for half the week, and then go to their father’s home for the other half. What’s been happening recently, however, is that the children want to stay at their father’s home, and he is not doing enough to enforce their compliance with court orders and the conditions of joint custody.

When I spoke to one of the older children and asked him why he wasn’t going to his mother’s house, he said that she was always talking on the phone, and that it was extremely “boring” at her house. There were no frum boys on his mother’s block, and no one to play with. Although his father might not always be around to supervise him, at least “there are many boys on the block to play with.” The child did say, however, that if his mother came around to pick him up, he would go with her.

I don’t know what my role is in this situation. On the one hand, my sister wants to avoid any negative confrontation with her ex-husband. Picking up her children from their father’s home would result in emotional battles all around. On the other hand, my sister definitely lacks positive parenting skills. She makes the children feel guilty for not coming, but is not consistent when she is with them. She also promises them things and doesn’t deliver on her promises.

I can see why her children are responding to her the way they are, but it’s so difficult for me to stand by and watch this happen. What can I do to help?

A: The actual dynamics and legal issues surrounding joint custody are not areas in which I can offer great expertise, but there are several points I feel comfortable addressing.

Although you mentioned it almost as an aside, the issue of your nephew not being supervised by his father is not a trivial matter, and needs to be more carefully explored.

After a divorce, a best-case scenario would feature the involvement of a trusted (by both sides), objective third party. Unfortunately, such people often do not exist, or if they exist, they don’t want to get caught up in the aggravation inherent in these situations. That being said, having you provide some positive parenting to these children, in your role as their aunt, would be very beneficial to this family.

Sometimes dealing with problematic personalities involves indirect ways of working around circumstances. If your sister’s mood swings and feelings of being overwhelmed cause her to be inconsistent about positive reinforcement, you can help out by providing the prizes yourself. Perhaps you can also buy the gifts your sister promised her children, or come up with jobs for her children, such as babysitting (if you feel they are capable), and reward them for helping out.

There is a limit to what you can do to change the dynamic here, but (depending on your available time) you can help create positive experiences for your nieces and nephews. If you have children in a similar age bracket, create family play dates so your nieces and nephews can enjoy their cousins’ company. Give the children board games they will enjoy playing on Shabbos in their mother’s home. If your sister is open to discussion, suggest activities for her to do with the children (that they would like), once they do visit her home. And try your best to be empathetic rather than irritated with your sister (although that would be an understandable reaction). In the long run, that will help the most.

Hatzlachah in this most worthy endeavor!