As the song goes, “breaking up is hard to do”—but you can make it easier on your kids. Here’s how to rock at co-parenting.
BY DAWN CALLEJA | DEC 29, 2014
1. Collaborate, don’t litigate
Acrimony is expensive financially (a divorce trial, on average, costs each party $13,000, but that figure can go up to $100,000 or more) but also emotionally, particularly for your children. According to a 2009 report for the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family, kids who’ve lived through an ugly split are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues, and are more likely to drop out of school. Court-imposed outcomes also tend to be more short-lived than amicable settlements and can actually increase conflict in the long-term. “When you go to court, the winner goes yahoo, and the loser goes boo hoo,” says Gary Direnfeld, Dundas, Ont., social worker who specializes in family mediation and counselling. That means the “losing” parent will be less likely to follow the court order and will try to undermine the other parent in hopes of having it overturned. More collaborative processes force co-parents to achieve a mutually agreeable settlement. “Though you might have to plug your nose a bit,” says Direnfeld, “you’re likely to have a more durable agreement.”
Read more: Kids and divorce: an age-by-age guide>
2. Be respectful and “professional”
“Treat your co-parent as a colleague,” says Cameron Shouldice, a collaborative lawyer in Toronto. Would you blow off an appointment with a co-worker? No way. But Deborah Moskovitch, author of The Smart Divorce, remembers rushing home to meet her children, only to have her ex show up an hour late. “That escalates the tension,” she says.
3. Create a parenting plan
Sit down with your co-parent (and, if necessary, a third party, such as a mediator or parenting coordinator) to set out the rules and routines of your child-rearing partnership. The more acrimonious the divorce, the more detailed your plan should be, says Moskovitch, whose own high-conflict split dragged on for seven years. How will you share birthdays and holidays? Where and when will you pick up the kids on transition days? How long will you wait before introducing a new significant other? Is it OK to post pictures of your child on Facebook? Revisit the plan every couple of years to ensure it’s still relevant, given your child’s age.
4. Remember that “fair” doesn’t always mean “equal”
In the aftermath of a split, many parents get caught up in the notion that “fair” means sharing access 50/50. “But what makes sense for the child might not look like that,” says Nancy Cameron, a family lawyer and parenting co-ordinator in Vancouver. If Mom travels often for work, it might make sense for the kids to spend more time with Dad. If your ex has always taken your child to hockey practice, try working that into the schedule—even if it means giving up some of “your” weekend. And get your kids’ input before making any decisions. “They don’t want to be in control, but they do want what’s important to them to be taken into consideration,” says Cameron.
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5. Communicate effectively, part 1
“Generally, ineffective communication is one of the primary causes of the break-up in the first place,” says Shouldice. That doesn’t magically change because you’re no longer a couple. Attend a short-term seminar (check with your local social services agencies, such as Toronto’s Families in Transition, the BC Council for Families and the Alberta Courts), or hire a coach/therapist to ensure that what you’re communicating to your co-parent is being received in the manner you intended. “This stuff is way more of an important investment than trying to outfit the second bedroom to help the kid transition to two new houses,” says Shouldice.
6. Communicate effectively, part 2
Electronic communication allows co-parents to discuss schedules and air grievances without having to pick up the phone, chat in person, or stress your child out by turning them into a messenger. “But it’s so easy in an email to start a war,” cautions Moskovitch. A few rules: Take time to cool off, and to objectively consider your words and tone, before hitting send. Only deal with one issue per email. And respond to your co-parent’s missives within 24 hours (or set specific guidelines depending on the urgency of the situation).
7. Never dis your co-parent in front of the kids
This one can be tough, but if you’ve got a beef, deal with it when you’re sure little ears can’t hear. “Kids are terribly conflicted if they feel they have to align with one parent or the other,” says Cameron.
8. Schedule parenting “dates”
Clear your schedule monthly to talk to your co-parent about your children’s progress. If possible, have regular family meetings with the kids to discuss school, activities and whether the schedule is working.
9. Let it go, let it go…
You might have a few immutable rules in your house: a strict 8 p.m. bedtime, no fast food, one hour of screen time per day. Your ex, conversely, might take the kids to McDonald’s and let them stay up late watching movies. You can’t expect your co-parent to enforce the same rules you do, so try to let it go. But do sit down together and identify critical values—say, religious observance or a ban on TV violence—you both agree on.
10. Don’t sweat the small stuff
Empower your child to take their belongings to your ex’s place—yes, even that expensive new toy. “If it doesn’t come back, that’s OK,” says Shouldice. “It’s the kids’ stuff, and it belongs in both households. That gives them a sense of security.”
11. Get on the same page
To help keep track of pickups, appointments and school events, Direnfeld recommends using a Web-based program like Our Family Wizard, which was designed specifically for co-parents. Or keep it simple with Google Calendar. It also helps to have both parents on the school or daycare email list.A version of this article appeared in the January 2015 issue with the headline “How to rock at co-parenting,” p. 68.