Author's wish that all separated parents give their children a positive example this Christmas

The festive season is with us – the Christmas decorations have been up in the streets for weeks and anyone who has seen children’s TV knows that the pressure on the little consumers is mounting. Choirs are busy rehearsing “In the Bleak Midwinter” despite the warnings about global warming, and the decisions about whose relatives are going where are offending old and young throughout the land. Yes, these are signs that Christmas is coming.

And there’s another one – less talked about and often more destructive. Couples who are separated must decide who is going to have the children at Christmas. Most parents, I’m glad to say, show respect to each other and look after the best interests of the children – but all too often the question of contact at Christmas descends into a repeat of other battles about other things – money, debts, or who was to blame for the split.

Over many years of practicing family law in the courts of Scotland I’ve never come across a mum or dad who thinks that they are the one using the children as weapons to upset the other parent. It’s always the other one who is doing that. And the day of all days which should be free of strife and anger becomes the focus of everything else that went wrong over years of a former relationship.

Sometimes other family members can help to make peace and let the parents look forward rather than back. But sometimes it’s the other family members who get right behind “our side”, stirring up tempers and getting in the way of any solution which doesn’t seem to represent “victory” for one side or “defeat” for the other.

Family disputes are amongst the hardest to resolve because the roots of the case can go so deep.

There are cases in which the adults involved genuinely disagree about what is in the best interests of the children. There are even cases in which children might be in danger if one of the parents was to get his or her own way about contact or residence. These cases are rare. Many of the cases in late November and in December are about much less serious matters.

The courts of Scotland are dealing with the annual surge of cases in which sheriffs are asked to make decisions about who is to have Christmas lunch with the kids this year, or to whose house Santa will bring the presents first.

Is this what we want our courts to be doing? Is this what is best for the children? Obviously not. But it’s difficult sometimes to give yourself the advice that you’d be happy to give others.

Here’s my Christmas wish: that parents remember (despite proddings from friends and family) that the parents of any child have a relationship which can offer a crucially valuable lesson in how to handle a difficult human problem sensitively and positively. They will be common grandparents of their children’s children – and these youngsters can only lose out if different sides of the extended family cannot speak civilly (and more than just politely) throughout the year – and especially at Christmas.

Do you think Santa will grant my wish?

The Author
John M Fotheringham WS. Fyfe Ireland LLP, Edinburgh & Glasgow, and member of the Society's Family Law Committee
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