Children need mummy and daddy, even after divorce
Making shared parenting work.
By Elizabeth N. Baldwin, J.D. and Kenneth A. Friedman, J.D.*
The past is gone. Courts used to award custody in family law cases to the mother, recognizing that in the early years, the child is usually more bonded to the mother. They called it the tender years doctrine, and fathers usually had a token role. But the tender years doctrine is largely gone now. Courts will not automatically assume that the mother is the best parent. I spoke to a mother whose six year old child suggested that his parents sell the house, and move into the same apartment complex together. That way he could have his Daddy read him a story each night, and be with his mom every day. What a smart little boy! He knows what children want. Children don't want weekend visitation, or week long visits, or 50% time. They want their Mommy and Daddy all the time, and don't want to feel pulled from either of them. They want to spend time with both of them, even if they don't live together. But more importantly, they don't want Mommy and Daddy fighting with each other. Children need to feel loved by both their parents, and that both parents want them to love the other parent. This may seem like an impossible dream. How can two people who can't get along with each other in the marriage suddenly get along better than they ever have before? Although most parents initially believe that they cannot work together, if they really want to give their child the best they will find ways of accomplishing this. They must work together, help each other out, and look closely at their child's needs. How can more parents accomplish this?
Get help dealing with the inevitable anger that results from the ending of a significant relationship. Counseling can help parents by providing them with a safe, acceptable outlet to deal with their anger, helping to prevent the anger from clouding their good judgment. Parents can also learn communication skills in counseling, such as active listening, which can help them to relate to each other in a less reactive way. Role playing in therapy can help a parent learn not to have their buttons pushed, and to let slights and insults pass by without reacting.
Encourage your child to love the other parent. Point out the good qualities in your former partner. If you cannot think of any, look seriously at your anger. Try making a list of your partner's shortcomings, get some of the anger out, and then try to make a list of good qualities. You became involved with this person for some reason. Even if the only good quality you can think of is his or her sense of humor or good looks, that is a start.
Convince your child that you want him to love his Mom or Dad, not that you are tolerating their visits. Some States affirmatively require the residential parent to do this, and to takes steps to convince the child that you want him to visit and love the other parent.
Encourage flexible, frequent contact with the other parent. It is best for young children to see both parents every day, if possible. Listen to your child! If he wants to go back to Mommy, bring him back. If he wants to go over to Dad's house, take him. It may be inconvenient at times, but children need to know that their wants and desires count too.
If one parent is securely attached to the child (such as with the breastfed baby) keep separations short, but very frequent. Gradually increase the length of separations each month, gradually working up to overnights, weekends, and week long visits, if that is the desired goal.
Get together once a week, or at least every now and then, with your child. Young children, especially toddlers, can benefit from having Mom and Dad together. Go to the park together, have dinner, or find some acceptable adventure that both of you can handle.
Help the other parent to be the best parent they can be. If the father has not had much contact with his child, the mother will have valuable information about how to take care of him, how to calm him down, and tricks to distract him from trouble. Initial visits should be with both parents present, so that the transition can be smooth for the child. Don't criticize the other parent, but provide as much information as possible to help your child have a good time.
Help to prepare your child for visits. Everyone will be a lot happier if "Daddy is coming!" is exclaimed with excitement rather than a wail of lament. If overnights are coming up, read books to your toddler about sleepovers. Keep pictures of your child and the other parent around, and tell your child how his Mommy and his Daddy love him more than anything. It is not enough to refrain from bashing the other parent; it is important to convince your child that you want him to love his other parent.
Settle your legal case rather than letting a Judge decide it. There are many ways to settle. Mediation is one way, or even the two of you meeting with your lawyers. You can have anything with settlement! Take control of your lives and your case, and start making decisions together.
Protecting our children when it is not necessarily in our best interests can be a difficult challenge. It requires a lot of compromise and consideration for others, just as raising children in an intact family does. Regardless of the reasons for divorce, most parents can do this. Giving our children the best is something we all want to do, and with a little help it may be easier than you think!
* Elizabeth N. Baldwin, and Kenneth A. Friedman, are attorneys and mediators in Miami, Florida. Elizabeth consults with parents nationwide, assisting in fashioning parenting time plans, and conducting family mediations, including phone mediation. They can be reached at 2020 N.E. 163rd Street, Suite 300, North Miami Beach, Florida 33162, 305-944-9100
(Fax 305-949-9029), or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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