If parenting is known to be a hard job, co-parenting is even harder.
After a divorce, the relationship between you and your now-ex changes significantly. But if you have children together, you never fully sever that relationship. Especially when the kids are still young, you’ve got a lot of work to do, and the hope is that you can cooperate politely and effectively enough to give the kids the best you have to offer.
However, you are no longer collaborating in the same way you might have attempted to in the past. Except in the very best of divorce situations, there is probably no discussion of how “we” are going to handle a certain behavior, situation, or parenting issue.
Bobby isn’t doing well in math class? Molly struggling to make friends? During marriage, you and your spouse strategize together to determine the best ways to help your kids. After a divorce, that kind of cooperation is (unfortunately) rare.
The real trouble, of course, is when you choose an approach with which to address Bobby’s academics or Molly’s social issues – and your coparent isn’t on the same page. How are you to handle different parenting approaches when you’re divorced?
The short answer is this: handling parenting differences post-divorce comes down to:
This means you try to discuss the issues and work together, but ultimately, since you cannot force change, you must – for the benefit of your children – deal with the situation as it is, as best you can.
If you are in the fortunate position of being totally in sync with your ex-partner, where you guys work together to solve parenting issues, discuss the kids’ problems as a team, talk to the teacher together, etc. – bless your heart and keep it up.
Even in situations that aren’t so rosy, it’s possible to have tactical discussions together where you focus on the needs of the child(ren) and keep your personal gripes out of it. Easier said than done, I know; but still, it is not impossible.
Focus on Your Children's Needs
When entering into such a conversation, remind yourself that you’re not there to get a personal reckoning or to even the score; you’re there to make sure your kids get what they need. Write this on your palm and look at it during coparenting discussions if you need; it must be your guiding light. If you engage in the same arguments that troubled your marriage, it benefits no one - neither you nor your kids.
Focus your discussion on the children and be vigilant not to make any personal comments about your ex. If you have concerns about Bobby completing his homework, any remarks you make about your ex's work ethic, the disorganization of their home, their lack of follow-up, or any personal criticism will only provoke a defensive reaction. Stick to what Bobby needs – e.g., a quiet environment to do his homework and a regular time to do it.
Open and Polite Communication
The other important point about these communications is that you can further avoid a defensive reaction by taking ownership over your concerns and wishes – meaning, put them forth as your own suggestions and not objective truth. If your ex doesn’t already agree with your position, then framing it as factual reality means you are telling them they’re wrong. People tend not to respond well to that kind of comment.
If you frame your concern as your subjective opinion, you breed less defensiveness. Thus, “I think Bobby could really use a quiet space to do his homework” is likely to get you better results than “The National Academy of Pediatricians says that children need a quiet space to do their homework.”
If your ex is open to your opinion, they might want to understand your reasoning, and you could find it helpful to present evidence at that point. But if they aren’t open to the discussion or to another way of seeing things, they’re going to reject your statistical proofs anyway, and relying on them to make your ex change their mind is just a frustrating fight for both of you.
At the end of the day, if you and your spouse can talk in an open and polite manner, then you have a way to work together to get on the same page as far as parenting. (Note: that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s not all that easy for people who are still married! A professional might be helpful in managing these conversations.). But if you have an adversarial and tense relationship with them, an exchange of ideas may not be in the cards. Then we move to acceptance.
As an important preface to this point, let’s be clear that if there’s an immediate safety risk, then you need to call for help. If your ex has a gun in their home that they do not properly lock up, or illegal drugs, or even peanuts if your child is severely allergic, you may need to call child protective services, a lawyer, or even 911.
But that is for clear and present danger. We are not talking about if your ex is a smoker, which may give your kids lung cancer in 20 years, or if they are putting your kids at risk of a heart attack by feeding them too many saturated fats.
(I am also not addressing here the issue of parental alienation – where your ex is intentionally telling lies and manipulating the children to turn them against you. That is a very terrible situation and one that will have to be its own separate post in the future.)
Dealing With Parenting Differences
There are many, many ways in which you may take issue with what your ex is doing in their role as a parent. If the two of you are not on good enough terms to communicate about it, then don’t. Anything that your ex is doing to the kids that doesn’t call for external intervention from the legal system is not worth fighting about if they’re not willing to listen.
In such a case, whatever the concern is for your children is not as bad as what you will do to them by engaging in repetitive, angry fights with their other parent. The value of a peaceful, if not collaborative, relationship between their parents is unquestionably greater than the majority of shortcomings you may perceive in your ex’s parenting. If you want the best for your children, choose peace over properly enforced curfews, optimal nutrition, good limits on screen time, and many other common issues.
If your ex chooses to let your kids eat junk food for breakfast while watching non-educational content on their iPads, there is little you can do about it if your ex isn’t willing to work with you. Your best bet is to accept that this is how it is and continue to get along with your ex for your children’s sake. Your children will not be forever damaged – and again, if things are so serious that there actually is that concern, you need to turn to the legal system to help you set things right.
Dealing With Disparities Between Households
The disparities between the two households worry many parents, as they fear it might cause more confusion and trouble for their kids. This concern tends to be unwarranted. If you are clear and consistent about your rules, then whatever happens at the other house won’t impact their ability to grasp what the expectations are in yours.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t try to change those expectations. They will definitely say things like, “But DAD doesn’t make us go to bed at 8 PM!” Don’t let this throw you off course! The answer to a charge like that is simply, “Yes, but this isn’t Dad’s house, and in this house, you have to go to bed at 8 PM.”
Don’t get too upset about this – this is normal child behavior (with different flavors at different ages). You may feel a little more pressure as a co-parent, but even parents who are still together get the same kind of pushback: “But Billy Jenkins’ parents don’t make him go to bed at 8 PM!” It’s part of the parenting territory.
Note also that your kids are actually already quite used to switching between locations where there are different sets of rules: they go to school every day. At home, you probably don’t require them to raise their hands if they want to ask a question or get permission to go to the bathroom. Kids understand quite clearly that different rules apply to different contexts. Don’t worry too much about their ability to manage these divergent modes.
Your role as a role model in your children's lives will impact them far more than the specific rules you implement in your house. This is true across the board for all the things you want your kids to grow up with.
Leading by Example
If you want your kids to be kind people, they’d better see you being kind. If you want them to manage stress well, you’re going to have to manage stress well.
Likewise, if you speak disrespectfully about your ex, don’t be surprised if they learn to speak disrespectfully about you. If you lose your temper when your ex does wrong, you can expect them to lose it when things go wrong for them as well.
Play the long game. The best thing you can do to give your kids what they need for life is to demonstrate it. They will ultimately choose their own values in life. You can’t force that on them. If you’re worried about what they’ll absorb from your ex, consider that someone who doesn’t demand responsibility likely isn’t responsible themselves. Someone who doesn’t enforce proper self-care likely isn’t engaging in proper self-care themselves.
Being a Desirable Role Model
What this means is that this person is probably not going to be a very desirable role model – whereas you can choose to be exactly that. As your kids grow up, they will have a lot more respect for you as someone who makes them go to bed on time, gets them to sports practice on time, and makes sure their homework is done, even if they seem to have more fun and fewer rules with the other parent.
Be clear with your kids about your rules and why they matter to you. Be confident that you’re making the best choices for them. NEVER put down your ex. And do the best you can to make peace with the things in life you can’t control.