Perfecting divorce, part 2: Divorce classby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
Richfield, Minn. — Minnesota requires parents who disagree on custody to attend coparenting classes. Hennepin County used to require a three-hour session for kids who were stuck in the middle.
In 2005, I visit one run by The Storefront Group, a nonprofit in Richfield. They group kids by age -- 6-8 year olds, 9-12 year olds, and teenagers. I want to see the 9-12 year olds because that was the age I was when my parents split up. There were no divorce classes for kids back in the 1970s.
When I go to Storefront, parents are dropping off their kids. They'll come back for the final moments of the class.
The kids are given workbooks. One page shows cartoon faces with different emotions -- sad, mad, worried, happy. The kids are asked to circle how they felt when they found out about their parents' divorces, and put boxes around how they feel about being in class today.
"I put circles around the sad faces because I felt kind of sad my mom and dad were going to get a divorce," said Nate. "And I put squares around some of the happy ones because I was kind of happy I was going to come here."
A girl named Halee selects a happy face about being in class today, but she concedes she was also worried that she'd be the only girl, or that the other kids wouldn't like her.
"I put a few scared faces because I was a little bit scared," said Brooke. As for how she felt about her parents' divorce, Brooke circled every emotion on the page, "because I had a lot of feelings when my parents were going to get a divorce."
Two Storefront instructors, Shawn Neel and Rachel Gustin, gently lead the children through a discussion of feelings and how they're all normal, and what to do if you feel angry. They emphasize kids aren't responsible for adult problems.
"Is it ever really a kid's fault that adults can't solve their problems?" Neel asks. A chorus of kids shouts "No!"
But these fourth and fifth-graders have had plenty of exposure to adult problems. The stories start to flow.
"My mom has a friend named Brad and we go over there a lot, and my mom doesn't want my dad to know," said Halee, "but I tell my dad anyways because I think he should know, because they're still technically married."
Several of the children have witnessed violence in their homes. Annika describes how her dad knocked over the Christmas tree, and broke a lamp and the window.
"There was glass all over the floor and my mom told me to be careful, and they just started fighting and stuff," said Annika.
These kids seem to know they are out of their depth dealing with unhappy parents, but they don't know what to do about it.
"It's like when you watch a grown-up movie, you don't want to know about this stuff yet," said Lizzy.
Halee, the girl sitting next to Lizzy, nods in agreement. Then she says, "That's why they have cartoons."
The children learn about four divorce traps kids can fall into.
They practice what to do when a parent asks them to play messenger, or spy on the other parent. "Substitute" is when a parent treats a kid like another adult, maybe leaning on them too much for support, which is a confusing role for a kid.
Annika volunteers to be the child in the poison game. The children pretending to be her parents fill her ears with poisonous words about each other.
"What do you think you could you do?" Neel asks Annika.
"I'll tell both of them secrets about getting back together," she replies with evident satisfaction.
Whoops. Not quite. Annika has responded to the poison game with a game of her own -- trying to "Parent Trap" her folks back together.
The instructor suggests a different strategy -- that she be honest, and say it hurts her feelings when her parents say bad things about each other.
For the final exercise, the children write a joint letter to their parents that the instructor will read aloud at the end of class.
The parents file into the room and take their places behind their sons and daughters. Neel reads the letter.
"When you told me about the divorce, I felt mad, scared, ashamed, disappointed, sad, bad, like it was my fault, worried, stuck in the middle, shocked and surprised."
The parents' faces remain blank. One dad drinks a Coke. I had been expecting this to be the most emotional part of the class. Instead, it feels vacant.
In 2008, Hennepin County stopped requiring these classes, citing lack of money to enforce the mandate and a reluctance to intrude on family privacy. Once the classes weren't required any more, enrollment dwindled and the nonprofits were forced to cancel them.
There's not a lot of good data on how well these classes work for kids anyway. I wondered if what the kids learned in three hours would stick with them, or was it like passing out paper tents to people in a thunderstorm?