Dear Mrs. Radcliffe,

We're a married couple with three children, ranging in age from 5-12. We're currently going through a difficult period in our marriage, and though generally my husband and I are cordial to each other — especially in front of the children — we have decided, by mutual agreement, to sleep in separate bedrooms for the time being.

The question is what to tell the children. On the one hand, we could tell them excuses such as that I snore loudly or my husband works in the room and leaves the light on late. Or we could tell them the truth (which they might suspect anyways), but we're worried about the emotional affect this may have on them.

Do we tell them the truth? And if yes, what would be the wisest way to break it to them?


Dear Sara,

In order to answer this question, we have to consider the nature of children. In general, children are at a stage of life in which they are the receivers, rather than the givers. In the mental health literature there is a term used for children who are expected to somehow take care of their parents: "parentification." This term means that the child has been prematurely promoted to a position of care-taker rather than care-receiver. The child may be responsible for running the household or managing the money or raising the younger children. Or, they may be responsible for listening to their parents' problems. Parentified children are considered to be overly stressed and burdened with adult-like responsibility. Their young nervous systems cannot remain healthy in the presence of this excessive stress.

Although children aren't stupid, this doesn't mean that they are able to properly digest and process all of the circumstances of their young lives. For instance, a child who must deal with his parents' divorce understands that his parents don't live together anymore and that this means that his own life must take on a very different form. However, the child is unlikely to be able to understand much more than that. If his parents try to explain to him why they needed a divorce, the information is likely to go way over his head. How can a 6-or 8-year-old possibly understand the nature of an adult relationship? "Daddy was mean to Mommy" makes sense grammatically to such a young person, but in no other meaningful way. Even if the child has personally experienced the mutual hatred the parents have for each other, he still cannot understand its origins or meanings. Nor is it his job to do so.

Saying to a child, "Mommy and Daddy have decided to have separate bedrooms because we are not getting along right now and need our space" is overburdening him. He doesn't want to know what's going on in his parent's marriage and he doesn't need to know. The marriage is an intimate relationship, meaning a private relationship. It is no one's business why the parents are sleeping in separate rooms. Similarly, just because someone would like to know how much money the couple earns doesn't mean that it is necessary or appropriate to give them that information. Even if one's own child wanted to know the gross familial earnings, it is not necessary nor appropriate to give him that information (until he becomes the legal custodian of the parents' affairs!). Similarly, the fact that the couple no longer wishes to have intimate contact is their business and theirs alone. Their children are not "entitled" to it.

However, what is the parent to do if the child explicitly asks why the new sleeping arrangement is occurring? Is it proper to lie to a child, offering the types of excuses you mention above? The Torah promotes truth telling. When parents deviate from the truth, aren't they providing an incorrect model for their children?

Perhaps the only vessel greater than truth is peace. Indeed, it states in the Talmud (Yevamos 65a) "Great is peace; Hashem even changed truth for its sake. It says elsewhere, "It is forbidden to lie, unless it is for the express purpose of achieving peace." When parents explain to their children that they must separate because of the conflict between them, children become alarmed. They fear the worst – particularly in today's society in which every child has heard the word "divorce." Almost all young children are terrified and deeply disturbed when they sense that their parents' marriage might end. And of course, they can't possibly know whether this step indicates the end of the marriage or not, since they are way too young to understand how problems develop and resolve within adult relationships. They don't know about the process of marital and rabbinical counseling. They don't know about their parents' histories, skill sets or anything else that would give them a clue of what is to come. All they know – after their parents tell them the "truth" – is that their parents are in trouble. After that point, these children will lose sleep at night, suffer all sorts of stress symptoms and become anxious and depressed. They will lose their peace.

My suggestion, therefore, is to tell them about a snoring problem. Hopefully, your marriage will heal and you will be a happy couple again and your kids will have been spared unnecessary suffering along that journey. If it turns out, however, that you do seek divorce, then your children will have to deal with the "truth" at that point in time. They needn't suffer one minute earlier.