June 19, 1978 12:00 PM

Life is more serene these days for child psychologist Lee Salk. Back in 1975 Salk’s disintegrating marriage made bitter headlines when he countersued his wife, Kerstin, for divorce and custody of their two children, Eric and Pia, then 13 and 7. New York Supreme Court Judge Guy Gilbert Ribaudo, in a landmark decision, ruled that Dr. Salk was “the parent that can best nurture their complex needs and social development. “As Judge Ribaudo explained after interviewing the children three times in his chambers: “Neither child told me, ‘I don’t love my mother.’ They love their mother. But they said they would rather be with their father, that they feel better with him.”

Dr. Salk, 51, who is professor of psychology in pediatrics at New York Hospital, no longer finds himself being introduced as “the other Salk.” (Older brother Jonas, 63, was the discoverer of the Salk polio vaccine in 1953.) It is common now for Lee to be recognized on the street because of his regular TV appearances on NBC in New York. In addition he writes a monthly column for McCalls and has just published his fourth book, What Every Child Would Like Parents to Know About Divorce (Harper & Row, $8.95). Salk works whenever possible in his Park Avenue duplex so he can be on hand to greet the children when they come home from school. Recently he talked with PEOPLE Assistant Editor Harriet Shapiro about divorce and children.

Is divorce necessarily bad for children?

I’m not an advocate of divorce. It is one of the greatest stresses a human being can experience. But I don’t think divorce itself is bad for children. It’s the way they are ignored and put in the category of property in divorce situations that causes problems.

Do you believe parents should stay together for the sake of their children?

I don’t think parents who are miserable with each other stay together simply for their children. They do so for all kinds of other deep-seated reasons. If children are helped through divorce and dealt with in a way that preserves their dignity, they frequently come out with more emotional strength and security than those whose parents decide to stay together “because of the children.”

How soon should children be told about their parents’ divorce?

Most children know something is going on. They sense it. And they should be told before they hear about it from other people.

Does a child’s age determine how much he should be told?

I don’t have any set rules. Most parents know how much their children can understand. They should give the concrete facts of what is going to happen. But it isn’t necessary to go into the gory details. Children are far more capable of understanding divorce than many parents realize.

What is most important to tell the child?

The crucial point to make is that the child did not cause the divorce in any way. If parents don’t explain, children are vulnerable to believing the most bizarre cause-and-effect relationships. A child will look back and say, “What did I do to cause it to happen?” A daughter will think her father moved out because she didn’t kiss him goodnight every evening.

What else should the child understand?

Right from the beginning you must stress that “even though your father, or mother, and I are no longer happy with each other and no longer love each other, we still love you. And you can continue to love both of us.”

How can parents minimize the effects?

By being frank and open. If your boss decided to reorganize your life without consulting you, you would probably lose motivation, feel left out, defiant and depressed. Possibly even destructive. If you consult your child about custody and visitation rights, he will believe his parents care and will have a far better relationship with both than if his feelings are ignored.

How did your own children react during your divorce?

We went through a lot, and it is hard to go back over it and explain what it was like. But Pia and Eric’s main concern was: When would the divorce happen and what would we have to go through? They were unhappy but also relieved that the situation was going to be resolved.

Who should have custody of the child?

I believe both parents should have equal opportunity to be appointed custodian, without prejudice toward either because of gender. I am in favor of the parent who is better able to deal with the child’s best interests. But it is important to realize that because one parent is made custodian, the other is not excluded from the child’s life. Parents do not divorce their children, they divorce each other.

How often does your ex-wife see the children?

She sees them every other weekend and one afternoon and evening a week. If the children want to be with her for 24 hours some days I have no objection. I let them work it out with her.

Supposing in a divorce neither parent wants the child?

This is indeed tragic. The child’s worst fear—being abandoned—has come true.

Why did you sue for custody of your children?

I think each parent should confront the difficult question: “Do I really want custody of my children?” In my case, I could not see myself relinquishing my commitment to the children’s well-being and care. One of my greatest desires in life was to be a parent. I decided to fight to continue being an integral part of their lives and possibly lose rather than not try at all. I asked the court which parent would be more fit to meet their emotional and physical needs. The court’s final choice was a positive rather than a negative decision.

How have courts traditionally acted?

Judges have routinely awarded children to the mothers. Getting divorced was synonymous with, “Mother will get the children and Father will pay for their care.” This was true even when there was clear evidence of the mother’s misconduct, emotional instability, alcoholism or neglect. Even when the mother willingly relinquishes custody, society looks upon her as abandoning her children. This is very destructive and serves no one’s best interest—neither the father’s, the mother’s nor the child’s.

How well do you think the legal system meets the needs of children?

The present legal system leaves a lot to be desired. In the same way that physicians get additional training to be able to function as pediatricians, we should give specialized training to lawyers and judges to deal with children. They have to be taught the basics of child development so that in their decisions they consider the unique physical and psychological characteristics of the child.

What errors do judges and lawyers sometimes make in divorce settlements?

Many times children get massed with property and other belongings that have been acquired during a marriage. They are frequently used as hostages or as weapons. Children are caught in the crossfire. One parent will forbid the child to visit the other because a child-support payment was late. More often than I care to relate, I have seen children offered by one parent to the other in return for a better property settlement. Judges and lawyers tend to divide children’s lives up by set amounts of time rather than think about what that does to them psychologically.

Should children have the last word on custody and visitation rights?

Their feelings should be given a great deal of weight, but the decision should not be the child’s.

When should children have counseling?

I don’t believe that every case requires professional help. Sometimes it can be disruptive. I do feel that if children don’t have the opportunity to talk to their parents, and if they begin to show feelings of helplessness or frequent periods of crying, then outside counseling can be extremely helpful.

How are your children since the divorce?

They are happy, respectful, sensitive children who are doing very well in school, are popular among their friends and have a strong feeling for the family. I am proud and pleased that they have come through the divorce un-scarred and stronger—because they saw a difficult situation resolved and had emotional support throughout the process.

Did your professional training help you get through your own divorce?

I don’t believe the situation was any more or less difficult for me than for anyone else. Some shortsighted people think that psychologists should be immune to many of life’s experiences, but as a human being I feel just as vulnerable as anyone else. After all, surgeons sometimes have to have their appendixes removed.

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