Whether you're newly divorced or have been on your own for a while, there is one constant; co-parenting is hard. I doesn't matter if you're ex is June Cleaver or Bette Davis. The fact is that raising kids is hard enough, and now you have the added bonus of seven degrees of separation to the mix. However, by following a few simple rules of thumb, you can improve your relationship with your ex (and your kids) and co-parent with grace and skill.
First, remember that you and your ex are on the same team. Believe it or not, most parents only want what's best for the kids. By using the children's best interests as your common ground, you immediately eliminate a lot of arguments before they start. If Johnny's failing English, call your ex and let her know you need to make a plan... together. Try to have a few ideas jotted down before the conversation takes place, so it stays on track. When you talk, make sure you're both on the same page; for instance if a private tutor is feasible for one parent but not the other, make sure that is communicated in the least confrontational way so that the conversation stays focused on the common goal of helping the child. By trying to find a solution together, you're still saying, "I value your input on our children's upbringing" to each other.
Second, give credit where credit is due. When my therapist suggested this principle to me, my first thought was that she had started drinking in the afternoon. But when I tried it, something incredible happened. My son suddenly stopped being defensive over telling me things he was doing with his dad. He was no longer afraid I would find fault with how his dad was doing things, or what they had done together. When I supported -- and even praised -- my ex for a few of the decisions he had made over a long weekend, my son relaxed. No longer was he afraid I was looking to find fault with his dad's parenting, and it was safe for him to express how he felt -- good or bad -- about the time they spent together. If you can find even the smallest thing that your ex has done that you agree with, it will not only relax your child (that you're not trying to find the nail with which to pin your ex to a cross) but that you support your ex in decisions being made for their well-being. It presents a united front to the children, which means it's no longer "every man for himself." Mommy and daddy, while not under the same roof, are still a pillar for the kids.
Third, remember that each parent has a different style of parenting. Occasionally, when I see my daughter eating dinner perched on the edge of my ex's counter as opposed to a kitchen table, it's tempting to me to remind him she was not raised in a barn. However, that's his choice, in his house... not mine. If you see your ex letting your children do something that contradicts how you believe the children should be raised, you must remember that part of co-parenting means letting go of the little things.
Now, I'm not saying if you see little Susie juggling Hibachi knives you should turn the other cheek. No, my friend, I'm talking about things that come under the 'pick your battles' heading. For me, seeing my daughter perched on the edge of the counter is annoying, but not life threatening... so I keep it to myself. My ex has a much more relaxed style of parenting that I do; donuts for breakfast instead of my organic granola, going to bed with a TV on as opposed to my technology-free time before sleep. These are the differences that drive us crazy as divorced parents. But now, several years into it, I try and think of it a different way -- it's harder on my children to switch from one climate to another every week of their lives. So, for their sake, I try to accept the style of parenting that their dad has as opposed to criticizing it.
Fourth, try and be honest with your ex with everything having to do with your kids instead of stuffing it down and letting resentment build. When my ex's neighbor -- a cheerleading mom whose daughter was on the squad -- gave my 11-year-old daughter a thong (yes, you read that right) for a gift, I called my ex to talk about how upset I was. Now, granted, first I called my mother to vent about what kind of person actually does that... but when I'd cooled down and gathered my thoughts, I called my ex. Instead of being defensive, he was open to listening to my feelings and even agreed that the gift was totally inappropriate. In the end, I felt better -- not just because we agreed on a moratorium on any gifts from his neighbor -- but because he had listened and not just blown off my concerns. Likewise, when my neighbor offered to take my son to a car show, my ex called and expressed concern; after all, he didn't know the guy at all. And I listened, took his concerns to heart, and told my son that the car show could be something he would do... with his dad.
As with your relationship when you were married, the relationship you now have with your ex needs care, attention and patience in order for it to flourish. If anything, it takes more energy now than it did when you were under the same roof to make it a success. (As a complication, you can't use sex to win some of those arguments!) Remember that the ones who will benefit from your 'truce' with your ex won't just be your children. Less conflict, less stress and better communication helps you, too. Your children will grow up seeing that -- not only does it take love to make a marriage work -- it does to make a divorce work, too. Doesn't matter if you're channeling your love for your children to do it. Love... is love.