In this Series on getting a perspective on your co-parenting relationship, we not only introduced the need to use imagination but also the need to get information from others (Blog #2). We asked you to imagine your grown children as adults and imagine their perspective on growing up in your family (Blog #3). We also asked you to imagine what you would like to hear them say.
The difference between what you imagine your children will say and what you would like them to say can give you hints on what you need to change.
We then asked you to get the perspective of friends and family about you (Blog #4). In this Blog, we are going to ask you to get information from your children (now), in order to increase your perspective.
Taking this first step includes some risks, depending on the history of their family experience. The first risk is obvious. The ages of your children will make a big difference in what kind of questions you ask them. With young children, the questions have to be pretty concrete and pragmatic. You would not want to ask a four-year-old, “What do you think about the way that dad and I discipline you?” You might ask, “What is hard for you going back and forth between homes?”
The second risk is trickier. Children in some families, especially teenagers, will have likely taken sides for one parent and against the other parent. In these families, the co-parenting relationship often has been troubled with competition and blame, rather than cooperation and respect. This puts pressure on children to take sides. It is not always easy to predict or even explain why they take one side or the other. However, it is always destructive, unless the side-taking reflects their real experiences. If a fifteen-year-old says that he does not like going to his father’s house because his father is getting drunk every day, that makes sense.
The best way to handle the risk of taking sides is to compare what children say to the ideal.
In the ideal, children will recognize that their parents have differences, but generally it goes well for them at both houses. Any deviation from this ideal, again unless there are real problems in one or both homes, can be a problem that needs fixing. Some real problems, whether major or minor, can be addressed in this process. For example, a fourteen-year-old girl says that she doesn’t like going to her dad’s house. If and when asked, “What would have to change for you to like going there?” the answer might be a problem that can be solved. For example, “Dad yells at us when we don’t just jump up and do our chores. If he didn’t yell, and if we had some say-so about the chores, it would be much better.” Or imagine her saying, “He is always paying so much attention to his girlfriend that we don’t do anything fun together.”
Both of these problems can lead to skill-building for the child, and/or are problems that the parents can solve.
Another risk is when there is a competitive relationship between parents. In a competitive relationship, whether purposeful or inadvertent, each parent wants to be the child’s favorite. This is not normal. Normal depends on what is going on at the time at each parent’s home. Girls can be notoriously loyal to their fathers, for example, between eleven and fourteen years old, and can be particularly conflictual with their mothers. This in no way suggests that the father is better than the mother. It is also true that certain parent characteristics can be more or less liked by children. One parent might be much easier to talk to. Another parent might share some important interests with a child. Parenting is not a popularity contest. The least liked parent might in fact be the most effective parent.
Five characteristics of a parent have been found to predict outcomes for children. The two top characteristics, in order of importance, are authoritative parenting and being a nurturing parent. Sometimes the authoritative parent is less liked, but what that parent does can be more helpful in the child’s future when compared to nurturing alone.
Our point is that comments like, “The kids like it at my home a lot more than at your home” are nonsense and not relevant.
The goal in successful co-parenting is how two parents can work as a team to raise independent, competent and confident children-not which one was the favorite.
This being said, it is time to get your children’s perspective, which is the main thrust of this Blog. The important questions to ask should be about the child’s experience, which include:
- Transitions from home to home
- The ease of access to parents from both homes
- The consistency/inconsistency between homes
- How the parents get along with one another
- Practical issues, such as how school is handled, access to friends, involvement in extracurricular activities, access to grandparents
Let’s give a few examples.
- Transitions from home to home: “Tell me what is hard about going back and forth to your parents’ homes?”
- The ease of access to parents from both homes: “Do you wish you had more flexibility with the schedule?”
- The consistency/inconsistency between homes: “Are there rules or punishments that are so different between homes that it makes going back and forth hard for you?”
- How the parents get along with one another: “What is it like for you when both your mom and I are at the same event with you?”
- Practical issues: “Is it difficult to be involved with your friends because you live it two homes?”
The goal of this exercise is to understand these areas based on your children’s experience. Some answers will include problems that cannot be fixed, but you might be surprised at how many problems can be fixed with some problem-solving efforts, even if only one parent works on it. The answers might also suggest cooperative ways that the parents can work on a problem. For example, a child might say that transitions are hard because dad suddenly says, “Mom’s here,” and then she has to rush around not to keep mom waiting. Problems like this are easily solved.
In Blog #6 of this Series, we will focus on getting the perspective of your CPP (“Co-Parenting Partner”). The task is as easy as using your imagination and then getting some information from your CPP. However, we recognize that the emotional challenge can be daunting. You will have to make yourself vulnerable, because you might understand in your imagination that you are part of the problem and you might hear things from your CPP that are very critical. We refer you to the Skill Building Series of Blogs on this site to help you with this. For example, one skill is practicing being vulnerable, which leads to more confidence and security. Another skill is how to listen to criticism in a healthy way.
We could appeal to your love of your children to motivate you to take steps in getting perspective, but that would only be part of the deal. The truth is, your life will be much better when you can get a realistic perspective on your co-parenting relationship and are able to solve problems for your children.
An important study in Australia discovered that separated parents generally do not give and get enough information from their children. After all, they are perhaps the people most affected in the situation, and they not only benefit from knowing what is going on, but have important information to share. This is an interesting, and at times, enlightening perspective. Listening to and learning from your children can be very helpful!
 In the “Healthy Choices” Blog Series on this site, Blog #7 details the five characteristics of successful parenting. As a quick reminder, they are: (1) Authoritative parenting, as opposed to authoritarian and permissive parenting; (2) Nurturing and emotional support; (3) Clear and high expectations; (4) Intellectual, social and skill building stimulation; (5) Participation in and support for the child’s life.