Parenting conflicts – process options for unearthing principles by director James Pirrie

In my previous blog on co parenting following divorce or separation, I suggested that starting with principles and then moving on to practicalities could promote more consistent and more child-focused outcomes.  And such an approach could provide a chance of generating outcomes that otherwise might prove to be elusive.

In this note, I will look at how we can do this in practice.

The first point is our propensity to pass over principles and propose practicalities:

  • in stressful situations we can fire out conclusions and share little of our thinking:
  • ‘don’t let Tom watch that film…’ ‘I will be round to pick him up at 8.30…’ ‘it should definitely be Spanish GCSE over German…
  • Having planted a flag on our position (and if there is then opposition) we fall back on marshalling our arguments in support.
  • ‘Marshall’ is probably the right word, with its warfare-connotations in that it can quickly degenerate into a military operation with a fixed trench of conclusion protected with barbed wire and mines and from which from which our arguments are mortared down upon the opposite views, similarly being entrenched and fortified …
  • … it also brings to mind that there may be very little going on in the no-mans land between.

The obvious answer in this situation is to reach for a court to adjudicate on the outcome (or more specifically, persuade a court to adopt your preferred outcome).  The trouble with the court is that it doesn’t really burrow down to find the underlying principles (from which solutions might then grow) either.

The cliché model is this, where we see red and blue’s conception of the relevant points on the issue:

But like most clichés, there is some value and truth in there somewhere:

  • Unearthing the underlying principles will take time.
  • And very often there can be a high degree of congruity around the basics of principles, even though the positions that are taken flowing from that common ground can be far apart.

For example:

  • The presenting positions of 11 ¾ year old Amelia’s parents are poles apart:
    • dad is fine with Amelia’s trip to Alton Towers (which has a ban on unaccompanied under twelves) with her 12 year old friends “who went there all the time when they were under 12” and who are planning on going again this Saturday with some older, unknown friends; whereas
    • this is an over-my-dead body moment for mum.
  • but progressing towards their motivations and down towards the principles that the parents say should apply to their parenting of Amelia, there is increasingly overlap. “Yes we want her to have friends and not be left out … Yes, we want her to be safe.  We don’t want her growing up to think that lying to get what you want is ok”

These issues are cropping up all the time in the pandemic:

  • For example – the child lives with mum and who has regular visits to dad nearby. Dad has a new partner who is working in the care sector and whose children are continuing to attend school.
  • Dad is pressing for a visit from the child; Mum is cautious about her health because of a recent programme of chemotherapy and is terrified about what their child might bring back. Dad says that this is just an excuse to flex her muscle.

At court the system generally encourages the thinking that:

  • starts with positions
  • and then progresses towards the principles that can operate as arguments in support.

And this is just like what is happening in out squabbles over visits during pandemic or trips to Alton Towers.

But this is really putting the cart before the horse; if we started with principles and then saw where they lead us, we would have a more constructive conversation and might even turn up some alternative way round the problem.

Court is generally the place for digging in deeper trenches with more and more elaborate defences and munitions, rather than unearthing fundamental truths from which alternate approaches or agreement might emerge.

Whilst we may have a mediation where one parent will say to the other “I hadn’t understood that this was what you were thinking…. ” I have yet to have a court case where a discussion like this has taken place as we come out of court with the court’s decision ringing in our ears.

The court outcome is practicalities again not principles. The court tells us what will happen or what will be done or prohibited.  Courts generate decisions and conclusions – often one side or the other …  rather than an exploration of what lies beneath or what solutions might be found in the middle.

And this outcome – and the process that preceded it – will often be stoking the fires to increase the heat existing between the parents as they come to address the next set of issues to emerge.  As FLiP’s Head of Mediation, Dominic Raeside always reminds us:

The choice for the clients is:

  • whether they are going to choose to exercise and build their problem-solving muscle or
  • bulk up on their litigation muscle …

the former is far more likely to see the parents being able to find their own solutions for the next round of problems that happen along”.

One approach when faced with impasse is to ask “Well, if I think about this from the assumption that my co-parent is operating rationally, what would have to be the case for them to be taking this stance…

Answers to this question might range from:

  • “operating rationally – that would be a first”
  • or “it is all about getting back at me”
  • to “I have absolutely no idea”

Little wonder that you are heading to court with the case, but before you do so:


“operating rationally – that would be a first” This probably isn’t so.  During your lives together there will have been good decisions made by you both … at the very least, it would be bizarre were someone deliberately taking an irrational position to defend.
“it is all about getting back at me” So when does this stop so that you start to focus on the children again?  The court will not deliver closure on this – it is more likely to be a process that will stoke the fires further for the next round.
“I have absolutely no idea” Well wouldn’t it be a good idea that you found out?


This is not necessarily work that parents can easily do on their own and help from a neutral professional, an experienced counsellor or therapist, may provide the breakthrough.

For further information and advice on resolving your family law issues, please contact director James Pirrie or any of our top London divorce lawyers and family mediators on E: or T: 020 7420 5000.