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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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CHILDREN'S ADVOCATE

When William Sammons '74M (MD) first walked into T. Berry Brazelton's office some 20 years ago, it was day one of the young doctor's new fellowship at Children's Hospital in Boston.

The famed Harvard pediatrician had some counsel for him: "I want you to forget everything you think you know about kids and their behavior, and start over."

Then he added a second bit of advice: "Listen to what the children have to say."

In the ensuing years Sammons has been listening attentively, and--through his writings and lectures, a nonprofit consulting service, and, soon, an interactive Web site--sharing with a wide audience the things he has learned.

His most recent book is Don't Divorce Your Children: Children and Their Parents Talk About Divorce (Contemporary Books), co-written with Jennifer Lewis.

Drawing on their experience as practicing pediatricians and framing their chapters as fictional diary entries, the authors examine both the child's and the parents' perspectives on the problems divorce brings to family life.

"If you look behind the day-to-day events going on during a divorce, you realize that the parents' perspectives and interests are not the same as what their kids' are," he points out.

"We try to help people understand that they can make simple changes in the ways they interact with their kids that will immediately have a huge impact."

Some of the things Sammons espouses are just common sense, like framing divorce decrees to allow for future changes in visitations. "Jobs change. Relationships change. Schedules change as kids grow older and begin to do things like sports," he says. "But divorce decrees don't incorporate a way for people to make accommodations."

Numerous studies have shown that children of divorce are more prone to social and academic problems than their peers. But, Sammons says, he has been amazed at what the kids themselves have revealed about their home situations.

"Even 4- and 5-year-olds know much about their parents as individuals," he notes. "In some cases they already knew there would be a divorce, even though they hadn't been told yet. It offered us a new perspective on how to listen."

One of the major things he discovered was that, even though parents may offer reassurance that it's not the children's fault when there's a divorce, kids need more than just the reassurance.

"What we didn't know, until the kids started telling us, was that if parents cut off the discussion at this point, the children believed the parents didn't want to hear what the kids were thinking and feeling," Sammons explains. "But they need to talk it out."

He's also an advocate of more consideration for the child in the divorce process--for greater involvement from schools, social workers, and lawyers.

"Lawyers need to understand that they have two clients in one person: the client who's about to become an ex-spouse, and the same client as a parent," he says.

"Certain assumptions, like 'Get as much for your client in the settlement as you can,' don't necessarily make the child's life better. The child sees that your client is trying to cripple the other parent, and your client may as a result lose a lot in the child's estimation. In the long term, that kind of behavior ends up being deleterious to all relationships."

He also is promoting a "pretty radical" idea, one that he believes could be a useful deterrent to parental game-playing: "a divorce agreement written in plain English, or at least with a version that kids can read."

Whatever the home situation, Sammons advises, "in order to make the best parenting decisions for your family, whether intact or divorced, you need to understand where everybody's coming from, and that includes the child's perspective."

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