As each sunny, sticky, South Florida summer day goes by, we inch closer and closer to the inevitable day when the new school year begins. For some of us, this is a welcomed change, when the routines of homework, after-school sports and other extracurricular activities bring structure and productivity to our childrens' daily lives. For others of us, this is the time when we're once again forced to interact more closely with our former spouses, feeding a breeding ground for spawning co-parenting disputes involving our shared children. "He's not doing homework assignments when they're at his house," "She refuses to let the kids participate in after-school sports," and "I don't want his new wife to come to parent-teacher conferences," are all potential battle grounds for divorced parents. While we may think that our actions are in the best interests of our children, the fact is that many of these arguments create tremendous discord for our kids, who witness and often get caught in the middle of the conflict. Statistically speaking, children living with high-conflict divorced or divorcing parents develop significant emotional disorders ranging from acting out in school to substance abuse or worse.
One of the most successful ways to avoid falling into the abyss of stereotypical co-parenting arguments is to get ahead of the disputes by designing, implementing, and agreeing to comply with a very detailed and highly customized Parenting Plan. It seems so simple to say -- dare I say, "too simple," -- but the magical Parenting Plan provides all parents (biological and step parents) the specific terms and conditions under which they are to operate, so that there is no room for "innocent" confusion or misunderstanding.
Below are just a few potential hot topic issues to consider ironing-out well before the school year starts:
1. Homework. Who will be responsible for making sure that classroom assignments are properly completed and handed-in? Who is available to work on research projects that span across multiple weeks? Will it be reasonable to have the child be autonomous on certain projects? Without pointing fingers or being accusatory or condescending, try to identify which parent would be best equipped to work with each child. Perhaps you will design this by subject matter (Mom helps with Math, Dad helps with English). Or, maybe Mom will work with one child, while Dad works with the other. There is no "correct" answer. However, it is critical that the Parenting Plan develop and identify roles and responsibilities so that the child's academic performance doesn't suffer.
2. After-school activities and participation in sports. Aside from the desire to have a well-rounded child, consider the necessary logistics of having your child participate in after-school activities or sporting events before making any promises to your child that may or may not be able to be fulfilled. Will this commitment unduly burden one parent? Negatively affect time-sharing? Prevent adequate time for homework? Is there sufficient time to commute to/from these activities? Are there safety considerations? Are there financial considerations?
3. Religious education. This is an area ripe for disagreement and bad behavior (of the parents!) Whether your prior marriage was inter-faith or whether you simply disagree on the role of religion in your child's education, remember that it is important to provide consistency and structure for your child. Using religion as an opportunity to hurt your former spouse can operate to confuse your child. It is important for both parents to be respectful when discussing their religious views, and determine an appropriate path for their child to participate and experience religion with both parents.
4. Parent-Teacher Conferences. Ahhh... the awkward parent-teacher conference! Believe it or not, most teachers are accustomed to meeting with divorced parents separately, or, managing the uncomfortable "group" meeting, where all parents are sitting side-by-side on tiny chairs. The tension is mostly between the parents, and it is often palpable. "Will he even show up? Is he going to dare to bring 'her' along to our child's meeting?" Remember that the purpose of these meetings is for the benefit of your child. Use this opportunity to plan ahead for these inevitable meetings, and devise an appropriate plan. Perhaps Mom will go to all meetings relating to her son, and Dad will go to all meetings relating to his daughter. Perhaps they will go to all meetings together. The point is to plan and agree to an arrangement so that there are no surprises or uncomfortable moments.
Remember, your family dynamic is an evolution. The Parenting Plan that was designed four years ago, when your children were in elementary school, may not work very well now that they are in middle or high school. Time-sharing agreements requiring an exchange of the "children" at 7:00 p.m. on a Friday night may seem a bit absurd, when your 16-year-old is heading out the door with friends at 6:30 p.m.! Whenever possible, try to establish aligned goals and expectations with each other, so that your children maintain consistency between households. Your Parenting Plan should always evolve along with your family, and it is to everyone's benefit to continually modify it, as needed.
What has (or has not) worked for you in the past? Please share your experiences!