THE BLOG
11/11/2014 10:38 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

Avoiding the Zero Sum Game When Families Split

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Ours is a culture that validates winners. Our professional lives (win a bonus or a raise), our leisure time activities (win a race, a prize or beat a personal record), and our even our vacations (win a trip!) are developed around winning.

The definition of a zero sum game is where one player's advantage results in the loss of advantage by another. A zero sum game usually occurs when players or parties are interdependent and compete so the outcome results in a loser.

I am proposing the activities of separating parents (win custody; win the battle; win a judgment; win a settlement) are not an environment where adults use their children as pawns to win. Rather, by setting aside the competition where one adult emerges the loser, the focus can be on collective efforts for the children to be the true winners in the process. Or to quote former President Clinton: The more complex societies get the more people are forced in their own interests to find non-zero-sum solutions.

So what can parents do in a practical way to not diminish each other during separation? They can start by remembering they are their child's first teacher. In divorce education programs, separating parents are reminded of the invaluable responsibility they hold as role models for their children. It is no surprise that separating adults, overwhelmed with decisions, financial challenges and raw emotions, too easily forget their children are watching them all the time and the way they treat each other is registering with their youngsters. Mean-spirited behavior, name calling, intense conflict -- are all adult behaviors designed to paint the other parent as a loser. When parents conduct themselves this way, the non stated message to children is - 'it's okay to act this way to get what I want.' And very often children copy or repeat these behaviors in their own relationships and friendships.

Before I retired from Kids' Turn , I attended a Conference on bullying. During one session, a very astute Assistant District Attorney suggested intense parental conflict during divorce is played out at school by youngsters and can lead to bullying. This was a new way to look at parent conflict and the potential harm it can bring to children. Without question, the importance of parents as role models cannot be over stated.

Mean spirited behavior intended to diminish the other parent also tells youngsters 'winning at any cost is OK.' Finances are often the area where this plays out. When parents separate, and the financial assets are split, one parent may be more negatively affected than the other. Involving children in the details to these complex court proceedings and negotiations, where one parent may come out less favorably than the other, is beyond what most children should be expected to understand. A parent is still their parent -- even if they've moved from a big house to an apartment.

Everybody wins when the children's needs are put first. Honesty by parents about how the children's lives will change post-separation, what input the children will have into family decisions, where everyone will live, where the youngsters will go to school (the biggie) and how both parents will continue to love and encourage their growth -- are all areas where there are no winners or losers. Quoting President Clinton again: we do better when other people do better as well -- we have to find ways that we can all win, we have to accommodate each other.