Happy Baby! By Unhooked Authors Kenneth Waldron and Allan Koritzinsky
Most people who divorce would like their children to be happy. However, more important than being happy, most parents would rather that, when grown, their children lead successful lives: that they have a career or job that works for them; that they are socially successful with friends; that they get into a relationship that leads to marriage and perhaps children of their own; that they are free of the burdens of addictions, mental health problems and chronic health problems; and that they continue to interact with the divorced parents. The long-term goals sometimes trump the short-term wish for happy children. In order to lead those healthy adult lives, children must learn to be competent, confident and independent. To be competent and confident, children have to learn to have good work habits, apply themselves to everything from academics, to housekeeping tasks, and to social situations like extracurricular activities and to physical activity for exercise. In many families, that includes religious training and moral development.
Parents must at times do things that make their children unhappy to reach these long-term goals, such as forcing children to do chores and homework, punishing for breaking rules, trying extracurricular activities, limiting screen time, having bed times, being careful about eating habits and so on. In other words, to reach good long-term outcomes for their children, parents sometimes have to do hard things that make their children temporarily unhappy.
Social science research has identified clear predictors of outcomes for children whose parents are separated. Many parents getting a divorce or separation find themselves arguing over what kind of physical custody schedule the children should be on, but research tells us that the physical custody schedule is way down on the list of predictors of outcomes for children. The reasons that the schedule often jumps up in importance is partly emotional and partly a trick of divorce laws. Nobody likes to lose time with their children and control of their children’s experiences and a separation threatens both. That is the emotional part. The trick is that the law focuses on the division of property and treats children as property. The word “custody” has its history in property law because children were considered property until the late 19thcentury. Children were “awarded” like a house or a horse. Now, children are not awarded to one parent, as they had been for hundreds of years, time with the children is awarded on some sort of schedule. Divorce law deals with the distribution of property, including time with the children, and so the schedule is thrust into a focal point by the traditional family law system, tricking parents into thinking it is important.
So, if it is not the schedule, what does social science research tell us is important to outcomes for children? The two leading contenders that vie, depending on the study, for first place are the quality of parenting in both homes and the family atmosphere, which is dominated by the relationship between the now separated two parents. The first is obvious. If the parents are teaching their children to be competent, confident and independent, sometimes making the children unhappy, the children have a good chance of turning out that way.
The family atmosphere is a bit more subtle. It is not as simple as “getting along” or the absence of destructive conflict, although that is an important part of it. Studies of separated parents who have children who had successful long-term outcomes identify five basic patterns that lead to that success.
2. Coordinating the parenting across households;
3. Designing kid-friendly transitions from home to home;
4. Having access systems;
5. Establishing rules of conduct.
These five tasks accomplish important goals for the children but also changes the emotional experience for the parents. When parents engage in these tasks, they remain parents 100% of the time, instead of the artificial cutting out created by a rigid physical custody schedule. Let’s flesh these tasks out a little.
Communication: Communication has two parts: sharing information and taking action. Sharing information is obvious and simple. When parents live in the same house, they take sharing information for granted because they either are both present or they talk about what went on with the children every day. When separated, the parents have to set up a means of sharing information with one another. Successful parents spend time every week or in some cases almost every day speaking to one another and sharing information about the children.
Taking action can be a bit more challenging. Taking action addresses making decisions and solving problems. This is easy when parents agree but can be challenging when parents disagree. One of the skills that successful parents teach their children is how to effectively resolve disagreements and often parents who divorce have trouble themselves resolving disagreements. In some disagreements, one person is right and the other is wrong and a good discussion can illuminate this. A healthy person admits to being wrong and gives in to the person who is right. However, some disagreements involve two people who disagree and both believe that they and perhaps even are right. Parents teach and model how to resolve those disagreements but if they themselves do not have those skills, they are unable to accomplish this.
Coordinating the parenting across households: The more similar the two households in the basics, the better children turn out. Parents can have different styles, but the more similar are basic household routines, chores and responsibilities, schedules and so on, the easier it is for children to go back and forth, but more importantly, children internalize skills that lead to later success. If the households are too different, children learn a totally different set of skills; they learn to adapt to different environments. For example, if one household has chores and the other does not, rather than learning competencies and becoming a good housemate, the child resents the parent and prefers the good life at the other home. This is critical with young children because of the tasks involved. For example, the foundations for good work habits are built from about 3 to 5 years old and to build those, both parents have to provide almost the same experiences in the two homes (e.g., task-oriented behavior, like puzzles). It goes without saying that other tasks, like toilet training, are likely to have better outcomes if the parents are using the same methods and routines.
Designing kid-friendly transitions from home to home: Moving from one home to the other is stressful for children. Successful parents spend time designing the transitions to be the least stressful possible. They work out a system for handling the clothing, for getting things that are at the other house when needed, spending a little time together at the transition, sending transition objects with the child, like a blanket or stuffed animal, letting the child take toys and so on.
Having access systems: This is essentially having flexibility in the family for contact between children and both parents. This includes fairly open telephone contact, procedures for the child to see both parents off schedule, procedures for the parents to get the children off schedule when opportunities arise, access to grandparents and other extended family in both homes and so on. In research, children rate this as second only in importance to how well their parents got along with one another. This is also another way that parents can feel like parents 100% of the time, even though they are not always with the children.
Establishing rules of conduct: All relationships have rules. However, in many cases, separated parents, give themselves the freedom to break those rules and treat each other poorly. Children often find this at least as confusing but more often as painful. It also has another harmful effect: it disrupts the first four tasks above. Parents will stop speaking to one another and sharing information if the interaction is painful. Parents will some making decisions together is it leads to painful arguments. Parents will rigidly follow the schedule and deny each other and the children flexibility and the household routines will diverge more and more. Transitions will be anxiety producing for the children and often for the parents. Establishing rules of conduct is simply agreeing to be courteous and respectful in general and then apply this to certain situations. For example, when designing transitions, designing rules for parental behavior at transitions so that the experience is pleasant for everyone. When both parents are at an activity, designing rules for friendly and courteous interaction so that the children are happy both parents came.
Conclusion: Separated parents who are truly interested in the long-term outcome for their children must design a physical custody schedule – that is the law. However, they should put much more energy into the five tasks written above that social science research tells us are much more important. Agree on methods to share information; if they have trouble resolving disagreements, meet with someone who can teach them methods. Coordinate the parenting and design kid-friendly transitions. Above all, develop rules of conduct that model social maturity to their children and make the other four tasks comfortable and pleasant. If one or both parents have parenting weaknesses, meet with someone who can do parenting training.