Friday, September 19, 2008

Staying Involved in the Life of Your Child

Vince Regan
December, 2001

This article is designed to give you some practical tips on remaining involved in your kids' life as you adjust to a new, and often very difficult lifestyle.

When custody disputes result in one parent seeing their child only every other weekend and one night a week (or less!) it can seem like an insurmountable adjustment. I've known single parents who have felt that it just might be best if they quietly disappear from their child's life - somehow thinking they are going to be doing the child a favor (you won't be). I've known single parents who have felt replaced because their ex now has a new love interest who may or may not be attempting to fill the role you once held (no one can replace your role as mom or dad to your child).

This adjustment, to being a visitor in your kids' life, is among the most difficult aspects of being a non-custodial parent. Before going further let's get rid of the political correctness that has so absorbed our culture today. Re-read the first sentence in this paragraph. It incenses many people that parents are referred to as visitors and the more socially acceptable term for many is "parenting time." I can write a separate article on why you should be incensed that the term "parenting time" is being used when the reality is visitation. When I write it I'll add a link to it. For now, suffice it to say this article discusses a new role in your child's life - a role where you don't see them as often as you were able previously.

Some of the ideas here are age dependant. They are in no particular order. You can do many of them when the kids aren't with you-to let them know you are thinking of them and love them. Note that your court order might, unfortunately, bar some of the ideas mentioned. Also note, it makes no difference whether you are the mom or dad, all of these ideas work for any parent who doesn't spend as much time with their kids as they would like.

1. Make your time together fun.
I know some disagree with this line of advice and there are often charges of being a Disneyland parent-but it surely beats a miserable time together and those who level the Disneyland parent charges haven't likely tried to "just hang out" with two, three of four young kids in a cramped apartment for 48 hours. I'm not saying the activities you choose have to be expensive. I used to have this fun method of letting the kids pick the activities we would do. And they could be items that didn't cost a cent like: going to the park, taking a hike in the woods, sledding, packing a picnic lunch, ones that had a small cost like getting an ice cream cone, renting a video, or going to the zoo. Part of the fun is how you set it up. We had a list of about 50 activities like those mentioned above and posted it on the refrigerator. Each was numbered and we had a jar with the numbers written on slips of paper. I'd try to allow the child (I had four at the time) who had something special happening in their life-maybe making the honor roll, just doing well on a special class project, etc... be the one to pick from the jar. Whatever they picked-zoo, picnic, visit to the dairy queen, etc... we did it, right then. It was important to have the list on the refrigerator for a couple reasons-it was a visual reminder to them of the fun things we could do and it was hung up at dad's apartment-meaning fun things could be done with dad.

2. Write to them. I used to get small boxes of self-mailing postcards from the post office or Hallmark store. I'd sit down during lunch or after getting to a hotel at night (I used to travel often when working) and jot down a note telling them about my day, or asking about theirs, talking about what we might do the next time we got together, or wishing them luck on their upcoming test, project, or event. Just the mere writing and mailing of the cards helped me feel much better-and my kids grew to love getting them.

3. E-mail or instant message them. In today's world there are more ways than ever to keep in touch. Using e-mail and instant messaging is one of those new ways that is often convenient for everyone involved. I wouldn't consider this in lieu of sending regular postal letters or postcards (it's often nice for a kid to get mail and have that item to open and hold onto), but in addition to other methods of communication. It's also worth mentioning that sometimes, unfortunately, the other parent can be unnecessarily intercepting, or defeating, other forms of communication by not providing mail to the kids or not allowing them on the phone, etc... .If your child has an email account or instant message account this is often a way around the meddling of the other parent. (Note that there are some circumstances where I'd advocate that the other parent does meddle-so I cannot condemn those who do without knowing more. But the majority of the cases I have seen involve the meddling only as a means of vindictiveness/control and not out of a genuine safety concern for the child.)

4. Extra-curricular Activities. If they are into sports or other extra-curricular activities there are numerous ways to get involved. From Cub Scouts/Girl Scouts to piano lessons or Karate Class, you can get involved. Offering to be the mode of transportation to and from practices or games might be welcomed by the ex and allows you to get extra time with your child and exposure to his or her friends at the same time. Most sports teams and other activities benefit from involved parents. You might volunteer to be a Cub Scout den leader, the little league coach, or the parent who plans the end of season picnic, the fundraising parent, scorekeeper or any number of other volunteer jobs depending on the activity. Whatever their interests, make them your interests and get involved.

5. Visit School. We often make the mistake of thinking our kids don't need us at school or that we aren't qualified to help out in our kid's classroom. The fact of the matter is schools are almost always sorely in need of volunteers. Often you can volunteer in your kids' class-maybe reading a story to the class once a week, or helping with a craft project, going along on a field trip, or copying handouts for the teacher or stuffing folders to go home to parents. Again, school is a great place to volunteer because you get to actually interact with your child and some of their friends-which helps you bond with your child. Even helping in other areas of the school, outside our child's classroom, is a great way to remain involved in your child's environment-maybe in the lunchroom, library or computer lab.

6. Call your kids. Calling your kids on a regular basis can be very helpful for both of you. It keeps you involved and lets your child know you care. You have to gauge it, of course, to the age of your child. When they are little it might be a two or three minute call due to their attention span-and when they are teenagers it might be a two or three minute call due to them wanting to spend more time with friends! In between there, however, you can have many great conversations with your kids-just remember that some will go better than others. Sometimes your kids may talk your ear off about this, that, and the other thing. Other times you may feel like they are distant or anxious about talking with you and while you may think it's evidence of trouble at their other home, it's just as likely you may have called at a bad time or they just had a bad day in school or an argument with a friend. Making the effort to call will be remembered by your kids later on-even if they can't always chat with you when you do call.

7. Begin or renew traditions. Your kids not being with you frequently is not a reason to skip creating or continuing old family traditions. Scheduling may be a problem, but you can be flexible and arrange to get your Christmas tree, carve your pumpkins, celebrate a birthday, or be the tooth fairy when your kids are with you. Traditions are so important in our lives. They create stability and a feeling of safety for kids and once created, your kids will let you know if you try to let an event go by without following your traditions. I'll share a silly one of my own with you-just to illustrate. Every year we make certain to have a thanksgiving dinner with just my five kids and myself. From the time they were all under ten years old I would lay everything out for our feast, load up my plate and then stand on my chair over the plate and take a photo-telling the kids I have really made a great feast this year. Now, with most of them being teenagers, they remind me hours before the annual feast to get my camera out just for that one silly photo that began when they were so young. They couldn't envision a thanksgiving where dad doesn't photograph his first helping of thanksgiving dinner. Like I said, it's a silly one, but it's become a valued tradition in our family.

8. Bulletin Boards/Scrapbooks/Websites. These are all methods for you to keep your focus on your kids when they aren't with you as well as when they visit. Putting up bulletin boards in your home/apartment and displaying their artwork from school, special projects, or notes helps you to share some parts of their life and reminds you of them when they aren't around. And when they do visit it reminds them that their parent is thinking about them and interested in their life. Scrapbooks are also a way to collect memories of times with the kids or milestones in their lives. Building them is often cathartic for you and is a great joy for them to check out every now and then and will become a cherished memory when they are older with kids of their own. The more technically adept may even want to build a website that showcases your kids talents activities, photos, and interests-it's also a great way to share that information with extended family and friends who might live halfway around the country.

The previous ideas should get you started and I'm sure you can build upon those with many of your own. Some of this requires a new way of looking at life and at your interaction with your kids. For example, attending an event or even getting them from a practice may require driving some distance-but it's worth every sacrifice to your kids. Scheduling and Planning are also affected by this new lifestyle. The old ways of spontaneous interaction need to be replaced with well thought out actions on your part that will keep you involved.

One more thought on spending time with your kids. I don't believe parents can have kids on a visit and just sit around and expect visits to go well. It's not like it was before divorce or the ended relationship. Parents need to engage kids in ways they didn't have to think about before-and being a couch potato or even thinking you can read a book or watch a football game on the TV isn't going to cut it from your kids perspective-especially early on in this new arrangement (in time you may be able to grow into a more "homey" visitation). They need your attention and involvement almost 100% of the time-even though you may have just worked 50 hours in the last five days and done your laundry and picked up groceries, and paid bills, etc... they don't realize it or understand it-especially if they are under ten years old.

They want to spend "quality time" with you, but you have to work overtime to make it quality time. And I can guarantee that some visits will bomb and some will be great. In fact, it's somewhat common for kids to "not be themselves" during a visit or two (or more) early on in this new arrangement. Keep in mind that sadness exhibited by your kids during a visit can also be completely unrelated to being with you personally, but can be a sense of guilt of leaving the other parent, or a feeling that they are missing some activity that they wanted to be a part of with the other parent, or that they felt bad they had to tell a friend they could not spend the night at their house because they had to go see you-the point is, very often, the sadness is not a result of you-but of these other factors.

No matter what happens, don't give up. Your kids and your relationship with them are too valuable for you to not invest all your energies in learning how to adapt to this new relationship that takes place when you're not with your kids every day. You can do this.

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