Children as Messengers

June 20, 2013 § 2 Comments

Robert Lyles and Christal Carpenter had a child together whom they named Emily Lyles. They entered into an agreed order under which Christal had custody of Emily. Robert was to have some specified visitation and telephone contact with the child. They also agreed to the following:

“[S]chool and extracurricular activities of the minor child shall be communicated to the other parent when the receiving parent first receives notice of the event and any associate[d] preparation dates, including date, time and place so as to allow both parties to attend when possible.”

Robert sued Christal for contempt claiming that she violated the agreed order by: (1) not allowing him alternating weekend visitation; (2) not notifying him of Emily’s extracurricular activities; and (3) not allowing him his telephone contact with the child.

In her defense to point (2), Christal averred that she had notfied Robert because Emily had her school backpack with her when she visited, in which were notes from the school about the extracurricular activities. She took the position that she was not in contempt because Robert had notice, if only he would take the trouble to look through Emily’s backpack.

The chancellor found Christal in contempt:

[T]he reason [the contenpt] is willful is because you assume that he should go through the backpack of your daughter … and find that document out, find that information out by himself. That [is not] what the Order says. It says as soon as you find out about that, you need to notify him. You [cannot] assume he got it from somewhere.

Christal appealed, and the COA, in Carpenter v. Lyles, decided May 28, 2013, affirmed.

I write to say that I, too, would have found Christal in contempt. As the chancellor said here, there is no question that Christal’s conduct violated not only the letter, but also the spirit and intent of the provision. It was her duty to communicate immediately and directly with Emily’s father, which she failed to do. I would have found an additional failure here, however.

My firm opinion is that parents may not discharge their responsibilities by shirking them off on the child. Christal was wrong, I would say, by leaving it up to Emily to be  her messenger. There are several points here to consider:

  • When parent A tasks the child to communicate information to parent B, parent A is putting the child squarely in the middle of what is quite often a conflict-ridden situation.
  • What punishment should the child receive for garbling the message or confusing the reply?
  • When the child is the messenger, parents are in a position to weigh the child down with adult, parental concerns that should be none of the child’s business or source of worry.
  • A child used as a messenger is often used as a bearer of critical and demeaning communications between adults.
  • Using the child as a messenger teaches the child that she is more important to the parents as a conduit of communiqués between combatants than she is as a beloved child.
  • Using the child as a messenger enlists the child as an ally to one side or the other, usually to the more embittered, negative side that has more invested in the twisted process.

No parent should be allowed to discharge his or her parental duties by proxy through a child. It’s damaging to the child, and definitely not in her best interest.    

I would encourage you to counsel with your clients to find ways to interact with opposing parents in an adult way that leaves children completely out of the conflict between them.

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