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 Blog 4 in the Series, we modified the procedure for making joint decisions about which the parents initially disagree.
In this Blog, we make modifications to the Six Step Procedure for addressing the sixth type of problem: resolving a concern about something that is happening in the other home.
First let’s start with Mindset, which is complicated and emotionally challenging.
- While it is important to address concerns about the other home, not all concerns are serious ones. Many parents think that once they are separated, each is in total charge in their homes, parenting without any limitations. If the other parent brings up a concern, the temptation is to dismiss it and tell the other parent that “you can do what you want in your home, and I will do what I want in my home! Period.” This is a mistake. Parents, who both love their children, can give invaluable information to one another by raising concerns. Happily married parents improve the quality of their parenting by frequently raising concerns about what the other parent is doing. It is also a mistake to view this as a control issue. It is not. Healthy parenting collaboration is just that- healthy for the children.
- As stated above, not all concerns are serious. Concerns fall into two categories: minor concerns and major concerns. A major concern involves: the safety of the child, or something likely to damage the child long term. Minor concerns are everything else. Major concerns must get resolved. It is impossible to have a healthy family unless parents believe that their children are at least safe in the other home. Protective instincts just run too deep. Minor concerns should be addressed, but not necessarily resolved. Addressing minor concerns creates an open information system where important information is shared between separated parents. An open information system is self-correcting, meaning that most of the problems that separated parents encounter are either avoided or resolved with minimal effort.
- Addressing a minor concern acknowledges that parents can do things differently from one another, and as long as it is not a safety concern or will not damage the child’s future, there should be some tolerance. However, the choices that both parents are making should be informed decisions, including with input from the other parent. The parent without the minor concern makes the final decision on what to do, after hearing the concern. A good way to view addressing a minor concern is not that the other parent is trying to tell you what to do, but is giving you information. A different perspective is usually valuable.
The person with the concern decides if the concern is major or minor and is responsible for that decision.
As you will see in the Six Step Procedure which follows, if the person believes that the concern is major, justification for the concern must be offered. If the other parent does not agree that the concern is major, he or she should still treat it as a major concern. Remember, in a healthy family, both parents must believe that the children are at least safe in the other home.
With this mindset in place, we can proceed with our Six Step Procedure.
1. Make an appointment. When making the appointment, indicate if it is a major or minor concern. However, do not say what the concern is. Save it for later.
2. Define the problem. Describe the concern and indicate again if it is a major or minor concern. We will give two examples, one major and one minor.
E.g., “I have a major concern. You bought Billy a four-wheeler and went four-wheeling with him last weekend. When I asked about the scratch on his arm, he told me that he tipped over the four-wheeler. He said that you righted it, and the two of you went on. I have some questions and also a concern for his safety.”
E.g., “I have a minor concern. Once or twice a week, you are taking the kids to McDonalds. While I doubt that the children will turn out damaged, I think that is excessive and is about half of the time they are with you.”
3. Describe the harm. The parent with the concern is still in charge of the process and is the speaker in the first three Steps. In this Step, the parent with the concern describes why it is a concern.
E.g., “I did some research on four-wheelers, and they are really very dangerous for children. They are dangerous for adults too, but adults can decide if they are willing to take those risks. Children cannot make that choice because they are simply too young to make life and death choices. There are numerous reports of serious injuries and even some deaths involving children riding four-wheelers. Some states have even tried to outlaw them for children but the best they could do is get the companies to make downsized machines. There are a lot of safer ways to have fun.”
E.g., “I think the nutritional value of the foods at McDonalds is questionable. Have you ever seen that video on what chicken nuggets are made of? It’s disgusting. They are also getting way more salt than is healthy. On top of that, they aren’t learning good eating habits at home. I want them to learn to cook and help with meals and sit around a table and talk, not in a car eating hamburgers. I don’t object to going there as an occasional treat, but not so much.”
4. The other parent responds- major and minor concern: Part One.
Here the procedure parts ways, depending on whether the concern is major or minor.
a. Major: As with the Problem Solving Procedure, the responding parent provides information.
E.g., “I know he got hurt, but he is just beginning to learn. He has the junior model, and the manufacturer lists it for 12 years old plus and Billy will be 12 in a few months. I thought that it would be a fun activity for us this summer. We will go out with friends, who have kids just a little older than Billy. You have to takes some risks in life.”
b. Minor: Knowing that the parent without the concern is going to make the final decision, the parent without the concern can try to persuade the other parent that what is going on is okay, or ask for ideas and alternatives or even simply reject the concern.
E.g., “I understand your concern, but when I have the children, I don’t want to spend the entire time cooking and cleaning up after dinner. I want to help them with homework, play games, give them baths and read to them. Going to McDonalds frees me up to do that.”
5. The other parent responds- major and minor concern: Part Two.
Here again, this Step parts ways for a major concern and a minor concern.
a. Major Concern. It is the task of the person with the major concern to take into consideration the feedback from the other parent and propose a solution. With our example, remember that the goal is not to win the argument, it is to resolve the safety issue.
E.g., “I understand what you want to accomplish and actually agree with your goals. It is good to have special activities with your dad and to have buddies who are also doing the same thing. I am also aware that I like to take less risk than you. However, at this point, I just want Billy to be as safe as he can. I propose that you wait until he is 12 years old, as the manufacturer suggests. That will be in October. Then, he can start next summer to have the outings with your friends. Meanwhile, I would be okay with your training him how to use the machine and especially work on safety. I would not want long rides on trails, but maybe in the yard or short trips on trails, and please, let’s go slowly.”
The other parent accepts the proposal if he or she CAN do it, even if he or she does not agree that it should happen. Remember, the goal is to have a functioning co-parenting relationship, which will inevitably payoff at some point, especially when the other parent has a major concern.
E.g., “Okay, if it will make you feel better, I will use this year to train him and start the more serious riding next year.”
b. Minor Concern. The parent with the minor concern says whatever he or she can say to try to persuade the other parent to do something differently.
E.g., “I get it, but would still like to see them going to McDonalds less frequently. Couldn’t you only go one night a week, or less, and the other night have a cooking night, teaching them to cook and do chores. You could even have them make the menu and a shopping list of groceries for the meal. That would be really good training and much healthier. I’ll even buy the kids a cookbook for their ages.”
E.g., The other parent can respond in any number of ways. It might be “I’ll think about it,” or “No, I am not going to stop going to McDonalds a couple of nights each week. It just makes everything easier,” or, “You know, that is not a bad idea, I think that could really be fun. I think I would rather shop for the cookbook, though. That could be part of the deal.”
This is the end of the minor concern bargaining. By recognizing who has final say, the control issue does not interfere with the process. At the same time, the other parent gets some feedback, a different perspective and possibly even a good idea.
6. Recap. This is the identical final Step which we used in the problem solving procedure in Blog 3 and in this Series. The person who brought up the concern summarizes the process and pays special attention to the agreed-upon solution for the major concern, and, if there is one, for the minor concern.