Kids are masterful little buggers but here’s the real truth: they don’t want to do it. They think they want to. They know they might get a “no” from dad but a “yes” from mom. Kids think they want more candy or later bedtime/curfew or money so they figure out who to ask and wear a Cheshire grin when they get the thing. But their far deeper need is to know their parents have a solid base from which the child can launch as they explore and engage the world. Without it, the ground shifts from one parent to the other. That creates confusion and chaos for kids. It shows up in anxiety and a lack of confidence as kids grow and engage with friends, teachers and other adults. Kids learn how to manipulate more than they learn to communicate authentically. Want something better for your kids?
Tips to help divorced parents communicate like pros:
1. Establish a “Small Stuff” Plan
Agree on the method based on what works to keep focused and productive: email, text, or phone calls. Agree on a frequency. Share stuff about your kids. Keep each other informed about important events, school activities, and medical issues. Use a shared calendar or co-parenting app to track communication exchanges, schedules and events. My Family Wizard is a long-time player in this space.
2. Meet to keep “Small Stuff” from Becoming “Big Stuff”
Depending on the age of your child, set a regular, in-person check-in meeting. More frequently for younger children, perhaps once a week, less often as kids age, perhaps every other week, no less frequently than once per month. Meet for coffee or lunch and have a set of questions you address with the only other person who loves your kids as much as you do. Sound like sheer torture? It could be if you don’t have a structure or follow the ground rules. But you can do hard things-and far better you than your kids.
3. Ground Rules for Small Stuff and Check-In Meetings
a. Keep the conversation about your child.
b. Avoid discussing personal issues or past conflicts unrelated to parenting.
If you were going to agree on what happened in the past, you would have done so already. You have your view, the other parent has his/hers. Leave it be. Deal with what’s happening with your child today.
c. Clear is Kind.
Keep messages clear, concise, and to the point. Avoid unnecessary details or information that may cause confusion. “I overheard Chelsea lie to her friend about whether she and another girl were going to a movie. I talked with her about being a person of integrity but I wanted you to be aware too.” (Avoid the temporary pleasure of adding “If you hadn’t lied to me our daughter might not be turning into a liar just like you.” Just No.)
d. If a conversation gets hot, take a break. Come back when emotions have cooled.
You can be vulnerable and say, “I don’t want this to go in a negative direction and I am beginning to feel frustrated and angry even. I’d like to take some time to think about what’s bothering me. Can we take a 10 minute break?”
e. Be Reliable.
If you commit to something, honor it. Be on time. Do what you say you’ll do.
4. The Master Plan
If you don’t have a structure, you’ll be tempted to think, nothing big is happening. We can skip the meeting. Stop. You don’t need the big things to happen. Remember, you are trying to keep the “Small Stuff” small. Start the meeting with something you can affirm in the other parent. It’s there. Share it. (“Thanks for letting the kids go to the concert with me on your week.” Or “You do such pretty things with Emma’s hair. I wish I had your talent there.”) Beyond that, here’s a plan that works for a lot of parents: Address The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
a. The Good.
Dad: “Here’s what I think is working well. Luke likes to bake as we know, but I’ve seen him do this more when he’s upset about something. I think it’s a really good thing that he’s got a relief valve.” Mom: “I haven’t seen an increase in that but maybe I’ll start a Google recipe book he can access at both of our homes with some of my time-tested recipes.” Dad: “That would be great. I’ll make sure I give you credit when we use one.”
NOTE: Mom did not say “He’s not baking more at my house. He must be more stressed at yours.” Dad did not say, “There you go. Taking over like you always do. I’m getting my grandmother’s cinnamon roll recipe so we’re fine but thank you.” Just No.
b. The Bad
Mom: “Ava still eats like a bird. I’m starting to get worried that she may be developing bad patterns. Are you seeing that?” Dad: “Yes, but I’m not really sure what to do.” Mom: “If we don’t force her to eat beyond a ‘no, thank you’ bite, but we make certain she does not eat anything before the next meal except what was made available to her at the last, then hunger might win and she’d learn to eat what’s served and when it’s served since it won’t go anywhere!” Dad: “Ok. I don’t think that will work if we aren’t both following the same plan though. Are you willing to really do this? If so, maybe we can text an update each evening so we are both tracking her progress as we go.” Mom: “Absolutely. I hope it works. Thanks for working this through with me.”
c. The Ugly
Dad: “I have something I want to talk to you about. I understood we weren’t going to allow Seth to go out on the weekend if he had outstanding assignments at school. He had 2 missing last week according to the weekly report and I ran into him and his buddies having a great time Saturday night. Is there something I’m not aware of that lead to a decision to allow him to go out?” Mom: “Honestly, I forgot to look at the weekly report. Ugh. I didn’t decide to not uphold our rules with him or reward him for not turning in assignments. I’ll talk with him and tell him that I’m sorry I failed him by not being consistent with our rules. I was going to take both kids bowling after school Tuesday but I will have him stay home that night. Thanks for bringing this up.”
NOTE: Dad stated the problem and then asked a critical and curious question: “Is there something I’m not aware of?” He didn’t lead with “I can’t believe how irresponsible you are. You let Seth go out even though he’s again not turning in assignments. And why would he when you don’t uphold the consequences. You just want me to be the bad guy.” Dad may have thought something along those lines when he saw Seth living it up Saturday night. Hopefully even then he checked his assumption (that mom chose not to impose the rule). But there is always something you aren’t aware of. Lead with that or another curious question. And because dad did that, mom didn’t get defensive as she certainly would have if he had unloaded all his assumptions on her. Mom was open about forgetting and offered an alternative to ensure there were consequences–for Seth’s benefit.
5. Get a Coach
If you are meeting but it’s a constant, miserable experience, get a coach for 2-3 meetings and learn how to do it better. The coach can help each of you going into the session to know how best to express your observations and concerns. Invaluable investment. The tools you will learn will pay huge dividends over the years as you run your business, Raising Our Amazing Child, Inc.
Remember that effective communication is a skill that can be developed over time. It requires a commitment from both parents to prioritize the well-being of their children and do the work to get this right. Your kids deserve no less from you.
Wishing you wisdom,