Mothers and fathers often disagree on matters pertaining to parenting. It happens when the parents are operating within the context of an intact family home and it also happens when parents have gone their separate ways through separation or divorce. However, unlike their married counterparts, divorced couples lack the trust and friendliness that is at the foundation of marriage.
Let’s take an example. Nine year old Liam is terrific at karate. He’s been active in this sport for several years already and has won competitions and prizes along the way. The recently divorced parents differ on their view of this activity. Mom thinks karate is fantastic and encourages their son to practice frequently and reach for the top. Dad thinks that Liam should put his energy into league sports (as he himself did at that age): hockey, baseball, soccer, basketball and so on. In order to encourage Liam in this direction, Dad tells him that “karate is for sissies; only weirdo’s do it.” Liam, not wanting to be a sissy or a weirdo,tells Mom that he wants to quite his lessons and do team sports.
Mom is furious. She thinks Dad is playing “team sports” with her, trying his hardest to win Liam over to his side. “If he was really thinking about Liam’s welfare, he’d let our son continue doing what he’s good at. Why does he have to make Liam feel bad for doing something that he clearly loves?” For his part, Dad claims sincere best interests for his son’s welfare. “Boys have to be on teams,” he says. “I don’t want my kid being a social misfit. He’s gonna need that karate just to beat up the kids who make fun of him.”
As previously mentioned this sort of dispute can happen just as easily within marriage as without. How would happily married folks solve the dilemma?
First of all, there would probably be a conversation between the partners. Ideally, Mom would express her view and Dad would listen and ask lots of questions about it. Then Dad would express his view and Mom would listen and ask lots of questions about it. This “listening and questioning” technique would likely uncover some common ground, such as wanting their child to be successful, happy, accepted, busy, productive and so on. Because the conversation would be mutually respectful, good will would prevail. The good will would allow for some sort of reasonable compromise. “Why don’t we continue to let him do karate, but cut down his lessons once or twice a week, and sign him up for basketball on the other nights. He could try both activities and either pursue both indefinitely or choose his own favorite.”
The very best thing for divorced families to do is to imitate the processes found in happy intact homes. The parents don’t have to love each other in order to conduct respectful conversations for the wellbeing of their kids. They just have to care enough about their kids to do it.
The Divorced Child
When one or both parties cannot or will not communicate respectfully, it is the child who is at risk. Let’s say that in our current example, neither parent is willing to change their point of view. Mom is the one who has been taking Liam to karate – should she continue doing so or stop?
Mom needs to ask herself which action on her part will contribute most to her son’s mental health. If she battles it out with Dad because she so firmly believes that karate is the best choice of leisure activity, then Liam suffers from witnessing yet more parental conflict. Moreover, if he sees that Mom is vehemently pro-karate while Dad is vehemently anti-karate, he will be torn down the middle, wanting Mom’s approval, wanting Dad’s approval and knowing that he cannot have both. In addition, both parents will be modeling a strong case for stubborn behavior, something that they will not be happy to see in Liam later on. Taking the issue to court would be costly and traumatic to the family and by the time it was settled, Liam would probably be an adult!
In this scenario, Mom may choose to lose the karate battle for the sake of her child’s wellbeing. Now that Liam feels self-conscious about karate, she can empathize with his feelings using emotional coaching: “It makes sense that you wouldn’t want to do a sport that’s for sissies Liam. If you feel you’ve had enough of karate for now and want to try something different, that’s fine. It’s good to have variety and try different things.” In this way, Liam’s passion for karate is sacrificed for the sake of his overall mental health and development. He gets to feel good about himself and safe in his little divorced world. When he gets a little older, something may rekindle his interest in karate and he may decide to pursue it at that time. Whether this happens or not, however, his mom will have done the very best for him by reducing conflict and divided loyalties.
Divorced parenting involves many such sacrifices. The big picture must always take priority over the particular small issue. This requires tremendous maturity and self-control on the part of divorced parents. It hurts to feel cornered, trapped and powerless in one’s parenting. Despite the pain, wise divorced parents put their child’s needs FIRST. They do what’s best for the child. Supportive counseling can help divorced parents work through their own feelings of frustration, anger and loss that inevitably occur during parenting conflicts.