My ex and I have been split up for over a year. We share an 8-year-old son. Recently, whenever it’s time to go to his father’s house my son throws a little tantrum, so I have canceled the last two visits. His father is furious with me and tells me I should make him go. I don’t agree. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: Good ex-etiquette is to understand that your son needs both parents and unless he’s not safe with his father for some reason, it’s your responsibility to reinforce dad’s efforts to be a good dad, just as it is dad’s responsibility to support you. This would be the natural order of things if you and dad were still together, but since you’re not, there’s no incentive to intercede – and unfortunately, your son loses.
This is when parents ask, “Are you saying I should make my child go?” And, the simple answer is, “Of course.” Let’s put this into perspective. If your child said he didn’t want to clean his room, would you say, “That’s fine, honey,” or would you “make” him clean his room? How about homework or going to school? You wouldn’t have any trouble “making” him go. But, when it comes to going to the other parents’ home, for some reason divorced parents feel its OK to stop parenting and leave their children to their own devices.
How you encourage your child to spend time with the other parent makes all the difference. Saying something like, “Try to make the best of it, honey, you’ll be home soon,” just continues to undermine the other parent. If you really want to help your child cope with going back and forth, try something like. “Honey, this is your time with Mommy and I know she’s looking forward to seeing you.” If the other parent has something special planned, ask if you can discuss it with your child – not to spoil the surprise, but to reinforce the other parent/child time together.
I once explained this to a mother who listened intently and then asked, “Why should I help him? He was a jerk.” I explained she wasn’t helping her ex, she was helping her child. She was making the transition from home to home easier on her baby by helping him to feel safe and secure at both homes. That’s truly putting the child first, which is the primary rule of good ex-etiquette for parents.
Finally, of course parents should always ask, “Why?” if a child balks when visiting their other parent, particularly if a child liked visiting, then all of a sudden stopped wanting to go. But, this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong at the other home. It’s an indicator that the parents have to talk to each other and compare notes. When parents put their own interests aside and reach out to each other for the sake of their children, that’s co-parenting at its finest – and that’s good ex-etiquette.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website, exetiquette.com, at firstname.lastname@example.org.