In the first Blog in this Series, we introduced the topic of solving problems by defining problems broadly to include the six types of situations common to co-parenting relationships, in which some type of joint action needs to be taken. As a reminder, those situations are:
- A problem that one parent is having with the other parent
- A problem that a child is facing that can be best solved if both parents participate
- A problem with others (e.g., extended family members) that is disrupting the co-parenting relationship or hurting the children
- Scheduling conflicts
- A decision that has to be made on behalf of the children and about which the parents disagree
- A concern about something that is happening in the other home
In the second Blog in the Series, we addressed how to define a problem that leads to a solution, including criteria to use when deciding if there really is a problem that needs to be solved. In the third Blog in the Series, we outlined a Six Step Procedure for solving problems that can address the first four types of problems listed above.
In this Blog, we make modifications to our Six Step Procedure when addressing the fifth type of problem: when a decision has to be made on behalf of the children and about which the parents disagree. It is easy to make a joint decision when parents agree, requiring no special procedure. The challenge is when parents disagree, because that can provoke a power struggle, rather than a solution.
While the law defines which decisions are joint decisions, the lists in most states are dismally short, unrealistic and even unhealthy. In Wisconsin, for example, only six decisions fall under joint legal custody, two of which are highly unlikely to ever come up: getting married as a minor and joining the military as a minor.
Parents will do well to make their own list that fits their circumstances. For example, while choice of school is on most lists, special programming in the school is not. Many parents might want that to be a joint decision. Other typical decisions that parents like to be joint are: (1) choice of day-care or after-school care, (2) body adornment (e.g. tattoos) and (3) choice of extra-curricular activities. As we outlined in a different Blog Series (Healthy Choices Series), an effective co-parenting relationship also makes joint decisions about: (1) household routines in order to coordinate parenting, (2) making transitions back and forth easier for the child (3) decisions that allow both parents to teach and train their child more effectively.
Any good decision-making procedure requires rules in order for it to be effective.
First, how do people make decisions that accomplish their goals? Three Steps are involved:
- Gather relevant information
- Develop opinions on the basis of that information
- Make a choice – the choice that has the most pros and least cons
Separated parents must avoid one major pitfall in reaching joint goals: Do not be the parent who gathers information, develops an opinion and has a choice in mind by the time he or she talks to the other parent. Why? Because these actions cause the other parent to be stuck, either agreeing or disagreeing. The emotional temptation is to disagree because he or she had been left out of the decision-making process, even if the choice really is the best one.
Getting to a solution requires the parents to go through the Three Steps together. This forms the basis of our modified Six Step Procedure. We call this “our” Procedure, although that does not give proper credit to the scientists and business consultants who developed the procedure presented below.
- Make an Appointment. The person who becomes aware that a decision on the joint decision list has to be made, contacts the other person, before gathering information, and makes an appointment.
- Share Goals and Decide What Information is Needed. If the parents agree on the decision at this Step, the process ends with planning how to implement the decision.
E.g., “Tony’s teacher mentioned when I picked her up at school that she qualifies to be on the math contest team and wants to know if we give permission. I told him that I would talk to you.”
“Sounds fine to me. I like the idea. Is there a cost?”
“No. Just the transportation to the math meets. I will get a schedule and send you a copy.”
“Thanks. Tony is with me tomorrow.”
“I will talk with her and let you know what she says. She should be included in the decision.”
If the parents disagree at this Step, they continue with our decision-making Steps. Still in Step 2, the parents decide what information they need to make a good decision and how they will gather the information.
E.g., “Tony’s teacher said that she qualifies for the talented student program at school and would be in special advanced classes that prepare those students for college. I told her that I would talk to you about it. I think it would be really good for her.”
“My initial reaction is that it would be a mistake. She would be with the ‘elites’ and that might mess up her social life. What if her best friends are not in that group. Besides, we know that she is college bound and might not need advanced classes.”
“I think we need to find out more. Let’s make a list of information that we need and how we are going to get it.”
Once the list is made and gathering that information is planned, they make another appointment, allowing enough time to get the information. For example, they might want to speak to the teacher to learn more about the program, to the school counselor to find out more about the importance of college preparation, to a parent whose child has been in the talented student program to learn more about the social implications, and so on.
3. Share the Information. At the next appointment, the information is shared. This new information might lead to an agreement. If there is an agreement, the parents skip to Step 6. If there is still no agreement, the parents consider gathering additional information, back-tracking to Step 2. If all the information is in, move on to Step 4.
4. Brainstorm Options. Essential to this Step is that both parents express their long-term goals and brainstorm options that accomplish both of their goals. It is also essential that both parents list the pros and cons of the options being considered. Brainstorming is not arguing positions.
E.g., “I really like the idea of her being better prepared for college but don’t want her to socially be hampered by only being with elite students and especially if she starts thinking of herself as an elite person.”
“I am less worried about her getting off track socially. You know how open minded she is. I just really think it is important that she be as prepared as possible for college.
The parents continue their brainstorming.
You heard what her teacher said. Even smart students sometimes drop out of their freshman year at college because they aren’t prepared for that type of academic experience.”
“That is a really good point. What if there are programs that prepare students for college but outside of her high school. That way, she can have a normal high school experience but also get prepared for college. I would like to look into that.”
“That is an interesting option. I also think we should ask Tony her thoughts about this. Let’s both speak with her about it. Let me know when you are ready to talk again.”
“There might be some other ways we can support her continuing involvement with her friends. We could also make sure we don’t let her get a big head.”
5. Make a Choice. After having looked at various options, choose the one that best accomplishes the goals of both parents. Remember that an effective process is one that takes into consideration the goals of both parents and finding a choice, or choices, that have a good chance of reaching those goals. Then plan how to proceed with the chosen option, including assigning specific tasks.
6. Recap. Although this might sound tedious, the Recap is an important Step. Recap the entire process of making the decision, including the final choice and implementation plan. This is done so neither parent walks away from the meeting thinking they have a solution, but remembers it very differently. This is also important because other information might pop up as important, or an unexplored option might become apparent. The more serious the decision, the more important this Step becomes.
Note how fluid these Steps are, and how easy it is to move back and forth between them. On the other hand, while the procedure might be fluid, we want to make an important point here: because the above procedure might seem much more involved than it needs to be. Our point is simple: practice makes perfect! This Six Step Procedure may appear tedious at first, please be patient. Parents who practice this procedure will get better and better at it, including more efficient. We promise! Even when they disagree at first, eventually they are likely to find that making a joint decision takes very little time to do it well. A joint decision is by far the best decision.
In our next Blog in this Series, we will address sixth special type of problem: how to raise and resolve a concern about something that is happening in the other home.