Virginia's Judicial System

ADR Resource Corner

Book Review: IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE CHILD by Stanton E. Samenow, Ph.D.
Crown Publishers, New York 2002; 228 pages; $24.00

In the Best Interest of the Child can best be described as a cautionary tale for parents. Its author, Stanton E. Samenow, Ph.D., is a practicing psychologist and independent custody evaluator who has written this book to give parents the tools they need to spare their child the trauma of a high conflict divorce or a custody battle. "You have within your power," he writes, "the ability and the moral obligation to do what truly is in the best interest of your child."

If parents are not able to resolve their conflicts on their own, Dr. Samenow cites a variety of professional resources, including mediation, collaborative family law, or other forms of negotiation as delineated in the Standards of Conduct of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

With reference to mediation, Samenow notes that it is most likely to be successful when both parents function together as problem solvers. He observes, "these parents love their child more than they dislike each other."

Even though In the Best Interest of the Child is addressed to parents, it's a conversation we can listen in on and apply as needed when we are working with couples in the throes of making parenting decisions.

Beginning with the descriptive Table of Contents and ending with a comprehensive Index, this book makes it easy to review a specific topic without having to thumb through the entire book.

Mediators who do not have mental health backgrounds can benefit from the author's professional knowledge. One especially helpful chapter is "Problem Solvers, Controllers, and the Impaired." Many of us will recognize the couples he describes as he categorizes parent personality types, describes the challenges inherent in the various combinations and offers specific suggestions for interacting more effectively with one another. These remedies can help mediators to determine the best way to structure the process, to decide whether or not ground rules should be created or enforced, and to devise questions or re-frames that have a chance of getting at the couples' true interests.

Many mediators do not know the specific chain of events that parents will set in motion if they hand their decision-making powers over to the court.

Four chapters describe the process and the inherent consequences of initiating a custody battle: "When Mediation Fails: Preparing for Custody Battles," "Costs of Child Custody Warfare," "Custody Evaluations," and "The Courtroom." If the warnings in these chapters don't cause parents to sit down at the kitchen table and hammer out an agreement or make a mediation appointment, it's probably safe to assume that something other than the best interest of their child is driving their march to war.

The specific benefit to mediators is that this information, outlined in painful detail by the author, can allow us to help couples face the reality of what they are considering. As Dr. Samenow explains to parents, "If you're aware of these consequences, you'll be powerfully motivated to move in a positive direction."

Part Seven, "The Seven Deadly Errors Parents Make and How to Avoid Them," offers mediators another unique opportunity to benefit from the author's psychological background and his insight into the needs of children.

Whether we use this information to recognize and validate parents who do not make these errors or whether we use it to identify red flag areas, these errors and their corrections can serve as a road map to ensure we are facilitating parents going where their child needs to go - both emotionally and practically. At the same time, these behaviors can alert us to the possibility that we may need to refer the family to professionals in the mental health field.

Finally, "Preserving Continuity" confirms many of the parenting issues mediators have always addressed: where the child will live, the time each parent will spend with their child, the child's need for stability and, at the same time, his or her need to incorporate change into a routine that may feel anything but routine.

What makes this section especially valuable to mediators is that it underscores yet another way that we can help parents lay an even firmer foundation for their children. In commenting on the importance of parental attitudes and behaviors, Dr. Samenow writes, "Whatever the magnitude of the changes you are facing, you need to do two things: help your child grieve and cope with his or her loss and guide him or her in perceiving the advantages of fresh starts."

When we, in our mediator role, can help parents focus on the future in the many ways suggested between the covers of In the Best Interest of the Child, we will have collaborated with parents to make a positive difference in the lives of their children.

(Diane Wiltjer is a certified mediator and mentor in Virginia. She is a former officer on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Mediation Network. She serves as a mediator and mentor for the Northern Virginia Mediation Service and is in private practice. Her background includes education and business.)

This page last modified: December 9, 2002