Our neighbors across the street generally kept to themselves after moving in two years ago. We seldom saw the kids outside, and even less often the parents.
Some of us only know their names because Jennifer, our neighborhood busy bee, talked to them one evening.
We knew they were in crisis when one day the mother showed up in a minivan in front of the house, driven by a woman who looked just like her, but maybe three years older. As if by design, the three children filed out of the house with suitcases and pillows. They got into the car. A few minutes later Dad followed with another suitcase, which he loaded into the back. Mom and Dad spoke for a minute, then she got in the car and the women and kids drove off.
Dad waved and stood in the street a while even after the car had disappeared. Then he went back into the house.
Our neighbors were clearly separated, and were now facing the task of co-parenting from separate households.
Co-Parenting Looks Different in Every Family
Families can come in many shapes, sizes, and flavors. Single parents, married parents, same-sex parents, older siblings and distant relatives all contribute in the role of raising children. This has always been true. The myth of the perfect nuclear family of married parents with 2.3 children is a goal that few families in any culture or time can achieve.
But despite the many differences and how a family might be structured, the rules for successful co-parenting are remarkably clear.
It turns out that children’s developmental needs are specific and attainable in any imaginable circumstance.
The following questions will help you understand your children’s needs and develop a co-parenting philosophy that supports their success.
Do we agree on the “big things”?
One principal reported having the weirdest discipline conference ever. One child showed up with four parents. The divorced and re-married parents were intent on providing their children with a clear message about the importance of behaving and working hard at school – so they ALL showed up when their child needed them.
The heart of co-parenting is agreeing on the key, fundamental values that will govern your child’s upbringing. These are the values that help guide every decision.
In the case of the large parent conference, it was clear that the whole family valued education. Everyone – from the principal to the teachers to the child – got that message. In this case, as expected, the problem was corrected and the child went on to be featured in the honor roll multiple times while in high school.
Some of the areas to consider when deciding on the big things:
- Holidays – which are the most important to your family?
- Family members – how do we keep children in touch with their whole family?
- Money and allowance – how can we work together to teach thrift and independence?
- Honesty – how will you work together to promote honest conversation with your child?
- Big developmental talks – who will give the “birds and bees” talk?
- Punishments / consequences – what happens when your child breaks a rule?
There are more, but you get the idea.
“The heart of co-parenting is agreeing on the key, fundamental values that will govern your child’s upbringing.” – Sakina Issa
Do we regularly communicate and express support for each other?
Unfortunately, this rule is commonly broken by divorced parents. Perhaps as a symptom of the problems in their marriage, they undermine each other’s decisions or talk badly about each other behind their backs.
This is horribly damaging to the child. It puts a child in a decision of having to decide who is telling the truth and who is trustworthy. And it almost always backfires, with the child distrusting the parents who talks badly about the other one.
It might take some work to find the proper language when the other parent makes a decision you don’t agree with. However, it always pays off to speak generously of the other parent’s motives and ideas.
Do we hold our values even when the other parent is absent?
Just as it is crucial to speak well of the other parent, it is also important to live into the agreed-upon values even when no one is looking.
While buying a special treat at the ice cream shop might not be a betrayal of values, I have seen parents who purchase a special large gift for a birthday or Christmas without consulting co-parents. This is problematic because it makes birthdays and gifts seem like a competition for the child’s favor when they should instead be a celebration of the child’s life.
Parents in competition are trying to win. However winning creates a loser. And the loser is ultimately your child.
Do we demonstrate forgiveness?
We are all human. We all make mistakes. We love our children very much.
Because these things are all true, the best thing we can do is to demonstrate forgiveness when one of us breaks our rules and values.
This doesn’t mean we do not hold them accountable, it just means that there is nothing they can do that will permanently break this relationship.
Struggling with co-parenting, or just looking for an outlet for the stress of parenting? You likely will benefit from talking to a licensed therapist like Sakina Issa.
Luckily, these conversations can happen discreetly and by appointment using the same tools you have grown comfortable using at work, like Zoom or GoToMeeting. Just click the button in the upper right hand corner.
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