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My wife and myself have very different views on bringing up our kids. Our differences and different ways of handling problems is tearing the family apart. My kids are about 6 years old (girl) and 10 years old (boy). Although we have not separated, the prospect of us doing so is very real.

One parent wants the kids to decide on important decisions in their lives. The other parent believes that the kids are to young. At roughly what age levels is it appropriate for the kids to have what levels of say in their upbringing?

Some questions the one parent wants our kids to decide -

  • Which parent they want as their guardian. (This parent seeks that 1 parent be designated the sole guardian)
  • How many extra-curricular activities they should do, and what they need to be. (There is concern from 1 parent that they are doing far, far too much after school activities, while the other parent wants to increase the amount of activities)
  • One parent wants an all-or-nothing approach to involvement in their kids' lives, either having full control, or having no involvement at all.
  • One parent also appears to want to lay out all the strengths and weaknesses of the other parent as they see them for the kids to decide. The other parent is loathe to take this approach.
  • The weight of these decisions could, taken to their final conclusion, include things like
    • When separated, which parent do they want to live with.
    • The above decision could also impact on whether they can continue to go to the same school (which they want to do), or if they would be forced - due to induced financial pressure - to go to a far inferior school.

(I have deliberately tried to phrase this post neutrally, which is hard to do. If further information would be useful, please advise) While I would appreciate informed views, I would be extra grateful of any references or authority in support of these views, if they exist.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; Most of this conversation was really attempts to partially answer, so has been moved to chat. – Rory Alsop May 9 at 14:17

11 Answers 11

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I will address only one issue:

At roughly what age levels is it appropriate for the kids to have what levels of say in their upbringing?

At every age, a child should have a voice about their preferences and should be heard and dealt with respectfully (patience, kindness, consideration.) But from birth, a parent is responsible to do the best for their child. A primary responsibility of a parent is to truly love their child. Ask yourself - before asking others what they think - "Is this course of action loving my child?"

Knowing your child and their level of maturity will guide you. They should have more say in minor matters (e.g. after-school activities) at an earlier age than deciding with whom to stay (I believe that right is given to them legally at the age of 16 in the US.)

Others have given answers with concrete examples of loving your children. Please consider reframing the entire situation.

Some possibly helpful references:

Co-parenting After a Divorce?
7 Ways to Co-Parent Peacefully After a High-Conflict Divorce
Research Consensus Statement on Co-Parenting After Divorce

Please read the last reference first. Shared co-parenting is in the best interests of the child, even in high-conflict parenting. These differences of opinion and how to handle them will continue after the separation.

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    I completely agree a child should have a chance to express their opinion, but I think it’s important to say that doesn’t mean their opinion always reflects the most appropriate course of action. The ability to compromise and accommodate appropriately is paramount. – Notts90 May 7 at 9:00
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    @Notts90 - I'm not sure where you got the idea that the child's decision should be honored. That's not what I said at all. "...a parent is responsible to do the best for their child." That includes deciding on screen-time, bed time, etc. Kids don't always know what's best for tem. – anongoodnurse May 7 at 11:58
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    fair point, “though” would of been better in hindsight. – Notts90 May 7 at 12:04
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    There are many great posts and I'd actually have accepted one particularly insiteful comment if I could have. Thank you all. I accepted this post because it sites references and I think its underrated. – davidgo May 7 at 19:02
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    @Notts90 You were saying that you felt this answer should have made this point directly. In the future, you can emphasize this with the word "explicitly." For example, in your comment above, you could have written, "...but I think it's important to say explicitly that doesn't mean..." This makes it clear that you're not disagreeing with anything; you just feel the answer isn't communicating an important point directly enough and are concerned that some readers may not pick up on it. – jpmc26 May 8 at 1:18
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I have to challenge your entire premise, which may get this post deleted, but I hope you get a chance to read this before it is deleted.

In simple terms this is a case of, Majoring in the minors and minoring in the majors.

Focusing on who is right and who is wrong won't solve anything because you will get opinion based answers that ultimately come down to, it depends on your situation. From my experience as a husband and father, first you and your wife need to commit to each other and not let each other's opinions about child rearing tear you apart.

Neither of you will be perfectly right about anything and even if you were you won't get perfect results. That is life as a parent.

Your ability to model 2 adults getting along will far outweigh any other lesson or worry you fight over. Likewise, your inability to model unity in marriage will far out damage any intended good you have from fighting over other things.

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    +1 I think this answer really boils down to the heart of the issue. At the end of the day, there isn't a clear better choice of full control (i.e. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) vs less control of activities. It's reaching a consensus between two parents on parenting approach. – jcmack May 6 at 17:30
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    I considered closing this question as POB, but this answer is gold. Also, it's getting other good answers, so lesson learned. – anongoodnurse May 6 at 17:38
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    You are not answering the question. Which you admit. That is fine. However, what gets you a -1 from me is that the OP explicitly notes major conflict between the parents, with separation a real possibility. In the case of separation, someone will need to decide whether the children get a say in who they will live with - which is precisely the first bullet point. Writing that "you and your wife need to commit to each other" is disingenious in this context. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica May 7 at 11:54
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    Q: "How should I handle possibly getting divorced?" A: "first you and your wife need to commit to each other and not let each other's opinions about child rearing tear you a part." Great thanks. – Turch May 7 at 15:41
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    @AdamHeeg Not at all, I think your insight is absolutely important and should be part of a good answer. I just think that given the description in the question, it is far too late to just give that as a complete answer. It is aspirational, the way we wish we were as humans, and thus gets a lot of (deserved) upvotes, but I think the asker needs a pragmatic solution as well for the irrational animal human. – Turch May 7 at 19:09
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Whatever you and your spouse decide to do, please please do not ask your kids to decide who their primary guardian will be or what their living arrangements will be. I found this approach terrible when my parents did it when I was 14 or 15. I strongly feel that this is the reason why I still do not feel emotionally close to them even though they are basically good people.

  1. You and your spouse will be listing the negative aspects of the other person. As co-parents, being respectful of the other parent (biting your tongue) and working together is a must for the well-being of the child.

  2. It is too much of a burden to pick sides.

There are some things that are solely decisions of the parents - where to live, whether to divorce or not, what the custody arrangement will be. Children need to be heard and allowed to express their opinions, and some things can be accommodated - paint their room a certain way, what stuff to have in the house, etc - within limits set by the parents. More important thing is to be available emotionally.

There are some things that can be decided with more input from children. After-school activities for example - what are they willing to do, do they feel overwhelmed, what are the goals for it, etc. The same approach is not suitable for all situations.

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    I don't think it's so cut-and-clear; in my case when my parents separated they didn't ask who I'd rather go with, and I ended more or less runing away from the house of my appointed guardian to the other's quite a lot of times, until I finally got the age qhen I could just choose where to live without anyone being legally capable of telling me otherwise. If I had been able to choose then I would most likely have a way better relationship with the parent I ran away from, since it's still something they are uncomfortable with even 15 years after the fact. – LordHieros May 6 at 22:36
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    I would agree that you should definitely not ask the child to choose; however, if the child volunteers a strong preference then this should be taken into consideration. Either way, though. someones going to be hurt, especially if it means losing contact with one parent. – Steve Shipway May 6 at 22:50
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    This is an excellent point that I was close to making myself. No matter how things unfold between mom and dad, the kids don't need to be involved in that. Give them the main points and don't drag any of the details of why the relationship deteriorated. My girlfriend and her brothers were included in every petty argument when their parents divorced and all of them have some level of emotional disorder from the experience. Ideally, working out your differences is the optimal solution, but do not try to make them decide who they like better. They want both parents in their lives. – Steve-o169 May 7 at 18:31
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Children should be involved in, and have input on, life changing things - but while they get an opinion that should be considered they do not get a vote; that is why they are children not adults. You are the parent(s), "man-up" and make the hard adult choices, while considering their opinion and wishes, but more importantly what is best for them.

Nothing is scarier for a child that the supposed grown-ups not being in charge and not having a clue. Once they are ready to have a vote and responsibility on important stuff they are adults. 16-19 years depending on where you live.

The degree of involvement on life changing stuff they have input in depends on the child more than age, but as long as it is input, not choice, it is better to give too much than too little.

Divorce however is a bad time for this, and may be exception to this rule.

The more important issue is, that as described, one or more parents are trying to weaponize the kids against the other. DO NOT DO THIS! If not now, later your kids will hate you both for this. This is no win nuclear scenario. If you are an adult, act like one, and do not pull the kids into your fight.

How did it feel as a kid when your "friend" made you choose between your friends? How much worse do you think it will be if a child / young adult / actual adult has to choose between their parents? I am pretty sure there is a place in heck for parents who makes their kids choose between them.

How your kids will be affected by being made pawns in your fight, and how they will view the two of you when older, makes arguments about schools and activities utterly unimportant!

Even if one of you end up having no legal input, and punishingly limited time to spend with your child, do NOT cut child out of your life in spite. The child will feel you abandoned them - and you did. The child is unlikely to forgive you, nor should they. Your pride, hurt, and anger made you abandon them just because you could not have your way on what school and what activities they had. For shame on both parents if they let this happen! It is more important the children can and are allowed to love both parents than what school or activities they do (even of one or both parents may be "unlovable" by objective measures*). The children will have enough anger for both parents for getting divorced to go around anyway.

I am a single parent, and a child of divorce. This is my experience:

My mom could have told me (true) stuff as a child / teen, and turned me against my dad - she didn't and I am grateful. *The things I learned about my dad later in my 30s would have justified her doing so - but I am better off because she took the high road.

My children were not made to choose between my ex and I, we agreed on that much if nothing else. My Ex did say a lot of negative things to our two kids about me over the years. I choose not to. One kid accepted it at first and hated me for a while, but later realized the truth (at about 16 or so), and now hate my Ex and refuse to see or spend time with my Ex. I feel sorry for both their loss. I never asked the child to choose, but when they did as young adult at 16 I respected it (legally kids can override divorce settlements as young adults at 16 where we live). The other kid, bless their heart, refuses to be placed in the middle and calls/ed out anyone who tries to do so. I regret the stress carried by kid because of it.

Both young adult kids have later thanked me that I have not vented my resentments of Ex to them.

If none of above makes you think of the children, know this:

The first thing my youngest child, just 4 at the time, said when we told him mommy and daddy was getting divorced, and would not be living together anymore, was: "But who will take care of us? Where will we live?". This was a scared kid who just wanted to know s/he would be OK after the grown ups blew up their world. S/he was not in a place to make choices about staying with mommy or daddy and live with those choices later. At least my Ex and I could say "We both love you! You will take turns living with both of us, and you will be OK with two places to live. It is not your fault mommy and daddy are getting divorced."

I hope the two of you find a way to protect your children from yourselves. Divorce is hard enough, don't turn yourself and each other into monsters, for the sake of your children.

(Apologies for long post and awkward wording trying to keep this gender neutral)

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    A fantastic first post! – Notts90 May 7 at 9:06
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    Thanks :) hope OP and their Sig-Other manages to get past their hurts and be the adults in the room. Sadly, it takes two to cooperate, but one to fight. In that case be Ghandi, be water. But it is hard, it really is...<sigh> – A single parent and child of d May 7 at 14:21
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    @Ave I didn't read anything in this as "anti-divorce". Instead I read it as "against bad divorce". (To be clear: I don't think divorce is a good thing - it may just be the least worst option available.) – Martin Bonner supports Monica May 7 at 15:01
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    @Ave: This is not an anti-divorce stance. If it reads like that please let me know why so I can fix. My mom was right to flee from and divorce my dad. I think (and my mature kids agree) divorce was best for my Ex and I. It is most strongly a "do not make you kids take part in your fight or use them as validation / weapons for your choices." stance. – A single parent and child of d May 7 at 16:23
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    "The more important issue is, that as described, one or more parents are trying to weaponize the kids against the other." DO NOT DO THIS! This times a billion! – dwizum May 8 at 17:59
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At roughly what age levels is it appropriate for the kids to have what levels of say in their upbringing?

Unfortunately, this varies based on the maturity level of the children, but I believe limiting the options (i.e. possible choices) and giving the child a choice wherever possible. This helps the child feel like they have more control and practice decision making in the future.

One parent wants an all-or-nothing approach to involvement in their kids life, either having full control, or having no involvement at all.

Being parents is really hard especially when the parents have conflicting opinions on what's best for the children. In a two parent world, full control over children is really impossible nor really should you aim for full control over little human being that will eventually be autonomous. The idea is that you should being teaching your children to be good future adults one step at a time.

Sure children need structure, but also choice too. For instance, your children are doing extracurriculars, so ideally your children get to pick what they want to do such as 1 activity that exercises the body (e.g. baseball) and 1 that exercises the brain (e.g. piano) and they need to commit to the activities for some fixed amount of time to teach commitment.

How many extra-curricular activities they should do, and what they need to be. (There is concern from 1 parent that they are doing to far, far to much after school activities, while the other parent wants to increase the amount of activities)

There is such a thing as too many after school activities and not enough time for independent activity. The children could also not have enough time to do the chosen activities well if there are too many. My recommendation is 1 to 2 after school activities. If the kid has capacity and interest for more slowly increase 1 activity at a time. My style is that I'd rather see that children progress in their chosen activity (e.g. getting different belts in karate or badges in scouts) than spread themselves too thin and do each activity poorly.

One parent also appears to want to lay out all the strengths and weaknesses of the other parent as they see them for the kids to decide. The other parent is loathe to take this approach.

I wouldn't lay out the strengths and weaknesses of a particular parent's parenting style for the children. The children should be able to evaluate for themselves. You may lay out things that a child might not realize such as they may have to change schools if they pick a particular parent.

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    upvoting this the comment about number of activities - probably 1 or 2 activities is fine, especially in the age up to 12. plus things are more hectic after a separation. – vikingsteve May 7 at 12:46
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It feels weird registering to this site since I'm not a parent, but I'm a child of divorce and I think my experience could be helpful here.

My parents divorced when I was 4. This has not been done peacefully as my mother didn't want my father to be able to raise us. My brother (age 5) and myself had to answer lots of questions (to court, or child care specialist, I'm not sure anymore) so they could pick the parent we stay with. I was too young to be traumatized by this, but it was of course a really, really bad idea. This led to years of conflict between them, and those conflicts were certainly by far worse than the conflicts that led to the divorce. I still remember how they hated each other during this time.

Long story short, a couple years later it went to court again and they finally agreed on joint custody: Half of the week with one parent, half of the week with the other, one week-end with one, the next with the other. This has been the best decision ever regarding their divorce. I wish they had taken this decision first, instead of fighting for custody.

To directly answer your question, I think that 6 years old is too young to take this kind of decision, but more importantly I think they should not have to take this decision now, as they can't really figure out how life will be with one or the other parent. If you divorce, I recommend you to do your best to achieve joint custody. Your children will obviously take influence from both parents, and this is the only way for them to really have their word to say, because along the years they'll be able to make their decisions based on their own experience, not based on a set of question asked in a critical period of conflict.

At this point you have to realize that you can't impose them such a binary choice without making huge damages. If you want to help them, let them experience life with both parents and keep them out of your conflicts. Then listen to what they have to say during their childhood, since they could want later to make life-changing decisions based on their experience. It's important that if such life-changing decision is taken, it's on their own initiative and not because you ask them to make a choice.

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This question struck a nerve with me and I wanted to comment but I don't have the rep for it so I guess I'll have to answer your question too:

I don't think either of your children are old enough to answer any of those decisions with opinions which should factor in the result.

  • Do they appreciate that not only are after school activities fun but they're also about improving athleticism, team working, knowledge, or social skills?
  • Do they know what makes a good school a bad school? Or why living with one parent means going to school A over school B?

I also very firmly believe that without legal intervention, everyone has the right to be a parent to their child. Unless that child is kicking and screaming about how they'd rather be a mum/dads house then parents should see their children as much as is fair to everyone.


The comment which I originally wanted to leave semi-overlaps with content brought up in the rest of your question so I'll flesh it out:

Please never make a child pick between parents. To say that you are a better choice of parent than the other tells that child that you don't respect their other parent as a parent - how would you like it if I told you that I don't respect your parent?

It certainly leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Both my parents are fine but they both only have bad things to say about the other and it hurts to hear my mum/dad being spoken about like that.... Even if it is by the other one.

My advice on this part is to be as neutral as possible towards the other parent which also aligns with my previous comment that everyone should have a right to be a parent if they want to be.

  • "everyone should have a right to be a parent if they want to be" - Exactly! (within bounds of safety, but that is why there are supervised visits if necessary). If you try to take that away from people they go postal and you get all kind of crazy stuff happening like abductions and even murdering the kids to keep them safe. :''( – A single parent and child of d May 7 at 14:25
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Seven is a commonly accepted boundary called the "Age of Reason".

If you form a relationship with a marital counselor or divorce lawyer you trust, they can give you additional objective advice. To restate the obvious, there is no hard boundary whereby every child will make good decisions on every topic.

If you can, consider structuring things so that your children aren't bound to a decision for more than six months or a year (i.e. structure their selections, and let them change their choices periodically). I don't know if this is commonly done, but several times during my childhood I would have tried switching life arrangements if I had been given the free opportunity.

  • This is very useful - thank you. I had only heard the phrase "age of reason" once before today and posit there is likely to be developental reasons for it even though the term is appears associated with a religious belief which is foreign to me – davidgo May 9 at 10:19
  • Well, the Catholic tie-in is simply the notion that at age seven, the child can differentiate between right and wrong. You don't have a believe in a magical being in the clouds to follow that. The Catholic Church is one of the most influential governments in human history. (Not so much today, which is perhaps why the reference may seem weird) – Douglas Held May 9 at 19:07
  • I hope it seems well balanced that I also included English Common Law (another very influential system in Western civilization). I am fairly certain the same "age of reason" does not exist in Chinese culture. It would be interesting to know if there is an equivalent in Asia. – Douglas Held May 9 at 19:23
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I would like to make a partial answer: One should probably avoid forcing the children to live with a parent against their will. Of course there is the possibility that the children don't know what is good for them and that they would in any case eventually adapt to the situation; but one cannot know.

If the children have no strong preference I would try to keep the children in their familiar surroundings with respect to school, friends and close relatives, if any. That stability will be important in the times of turmoil ahead. This may simply mean they stay with the parent who gets the house, or with the parent who will less likely move to another city in search of job opportunities.

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Of course this is not a yes/no question, like "at age 15 years 5 months and 6 days the child should be able to make all his own decisions, but at 15 years 5 months and 5 days he should have no say in any decisions". As a child gets older and more mature, he should have more say in his own life. How much say depends on the specific decision we're talking about and the wisdom and maturity of the child.

When my children were growing up, the basic principle I tried to follow was, What are the consequences of a bad decision? Are they tolerable?

Like if a 6 year old wants to wear clothes that don't match to school, why say no? Is he going to be physically injured by this? Is he even likely to be subjected to ridicule by his peers? Probably not. So while I might say that it's a bad idea, if one of my kids insisted, okay, so what?

If a 17 year old says he's decided to start using cocaine, sorry kid, no.

I had to force 2 of my kids to learn to drive. They didn't want to bother. (Personally I found this baffling. When I was a teenager the idea of the freedom of getting my own drivers license was something I was desperate for. But whatever.) It's very difficult to function as an adult in America today if you don't have a drivers license. And getting one takes many months, they can't just wait until they realize they need one. So even though they were each 16 at the time, I said no, you are going to do this, it's not up to you.

When my kids reached college age, I left their choice of college major up to them. I think 2 of them made poor choices, but by that time, they were old enough that I thought they should decide for themselves.

Etc. You'd have to analyze issues one by one.

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This is not going to end well.

"It takes a village to raise a child" Parenting is tough enough with two parents who regard parenting as a team effort, and are basically on the same page. My dad made a point of discussing his theories of child raising with my mom many times during their courtship, making sure they were on the same page with this.

Your object is to raise kids that are independent, well adjusted, and happy adults.

In general decision making as early as possible in small decisions is the way to go. But understand that the at different ages people have very different views of time. At age 6, "next year" is forever. Often even "next month" is too far away for more than casual conversation. In the pre-teens and teenage years, a year is emotionally graspable, and longer term goals (college, career) are intellectually graspable.

Decision making should be practiced with little things. Spend your allowance on treats now, or save for that drone? Go out for soccer, or go for track? Piano or Ballet?

Talk about the decision process: Choosing between piano and ballet makes no sense if they have never played with or heard a range of piano music, or seen and played at dance. Their choice may be, "neither: I want to do gymnastics" So one stage of a decision is collecting data and small experiences.

Talk about consequences. Getting a paper route to get money means getting up very early in the morning every day, or not having any after school life, depending on whether the paper is a morning or evening paper.

It is only by practicing decision making at small levels, they understand it at larger levels. And by their reactions and experience, you will know when they are ready.

Do not bother kids with decisions that have consequences beyond their current time frames.

Do not bother kids with decisions about 'what if' As in which parent do they want to be with. This erodes the stability of their environment.

Do not give kids a choice in matters that you have decided what they are going to do. E.g. They may not get a choice about eating their broccoli.

Give reasonable consequences for actions where they make a choice where there is no obvious short term consequence. E.g. In my household if we refused to eat something altogether, we didn't get dessert. How many bites was negotiable, but often 5.

Being tired and crabby during the day meant I wasn't getting enough sleep. Bed time was moved a half our closer to supper.

But much of their lives can be decisions without consequences: "Winnie the Pooh" or "Peter Rabbit" when you read to them at night.

One family I know allowed each kid (4 of them) to watch 1 hour of tv per week. Everyone could watch the other kids choices, and the PBS news hour didn't count against anyone's quota. Saturday was movie night, either DVD or streaming, but the parents choice as a way to expose them to classics. And they talked about them.

Kids could make their choices, but the implication was obvious: TV time was a limited resource. (On the flip side, Tuesday night was Library Night. And the kids could check out anything.)


In light of my opening quote, a single guardian is a bad idea. First of all, one of you might not be present when needed. If a kid gets hurt, someone has to agree to treatment. If that person isn't handy, you have a problem. E.g. guardian and child are both seriously hurt in a car crash.

It also reduces the other partner to a subservient position. Marriage shouldn't be a dominance game, but rather a partnership.


I strongly suggest that you seek marriage/family counselling. You and your spouse need to come to some agreement before you destroy your children.

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