The school holidays are a crazy time for parents. Family gatherings, catch ups with friends, and work functions, all with relatives staying in your house. And when family and friends come together to celebrate, there is usually a hodgepodge of kids – step-siblings, cousins from out of town, the neighbour children, and some other ‘ring ins’.
For parents, they have the chance to sit back and observe how different children react to different situations. The full range of human behaviours is exhibited, all in the space of exchanging presents, a 20 minute game of ‘Connect-4’, and a spirited session of hide and go seek.
It is a bizarre mix of behaviours. The children who connect well together. The children who publicly denounce the gift they’ve received. The children who are shy. The cocky game winners. Those who are reticent to participate. Those who try to lead the group. The children who help others. Those who break off and do something else. Little pieces of developing personalities shining through.
Even more fascinating is watching the different parenting styles of those children’s mums and dads – observing how other parents deal with a child who is not sharing, a child hoovering all the lollies from the kids’ table, or the child doing bomb dives and splashing the littler kids. We silently mark the management of those situations, awarding high marks to those who tell their kids off in exactly the way we would, and recoiling in horror when a parent does not intervene (making a mental note to discuss it later when that kid has gone home).
It occurred to me that, for separated families, this amazing exhibition, and unspoken critiquing of parents, is not just something that happens at Christmas, but weekly. The children of those families are passing from the household of one parent to the household of the other with regular frequency. For those parents, they are witnessing the different behaviours of their own children, every single time they return from time spent in their co-parent’s household.
The behaviour exhibited sometimes triggers the same urge to critique the parenting of your former partner, and in some aspects, prompts the same horror. The difference is, this child is your own, and you are left with the task of managing it in your household.
If you are reading this and nodding, know that you are not alone. While many parents are entirely simpatico after separation, their parenting styles and households mirroring each other, there are some post-separation parental relationships which are not so seamless. Conversations are often had with family lawyers by parents about the behaviour on show when children return from mum or dad’s place. That behaviour arises for a number of reasons, but usually boils down to dramatically different parenting styles in different households.
This is most commonly manifested in one of two ways. Firstly, different house rules – in one household it is television after homework or on weekends only, and a defined number of minutes of screen time of an evening. No snacking before dinner. Bath and bed by a defined time. And no devices in the bedroom. In others homework is not supervised or checked. There is grazing from the fridge. Bedtime is whenever. And there is no monitoring of devices. Secondly, different discipline – in one household there are consequences (no TV, no screen time, additional chores) for not completing chores and complying with house rules. In the other there are no real rules to be broken, and therefore little in the way of repercussions.
In other words, it is not a case of parents achieving the same outcome for their children, albeit via their own subtly different parenting styles. Rather, it is case of dysfunction creeping in to both households because of the happenings in one of those households.
The consequences of this dynamic differ across different families, but commonly, school performance slips when homework is not supervised and completed on time, and when children have stayed up all night or are regularly late to school. The things they used to love (sport, music) are progressively given less and less attention, and suddenly the only activity in which your child is interested is electronic in nature. A lack of clarity about online activity creeps in because it is not being monitored. For older children, you begin to wonder where they are, and who they are spending their time with.
As much as you try to reinstate and enforce your house rules upon your children’s return, it is hard yakka. They’ve seen that the grass is greener on the other side. You begin to get strong push-back about homework, chores, and routines. You are, in short, now the ‘strict’ parent, a second-class citizen in comparison to the ‘fun’ parent.
Then comes the reaslisation: you are living Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ – one household ordered and structured, and the other entirely unregulated, and chaotic.
The hardest part to manage is that the differential in each household is palpable. It leaves one parent feeling as if they are running the State prison, and that they are resented for it, the children not being able to contain their excitement to get back to Thunderdome, where no laws apply. That is a thankless job.
It can be difficult to have Courts intervene in these situations, particularly if parenting orders are already in place. Judges are simply not able to puppeteer what goes on in the household of each parent. The situations above also have consequences which are a ‘slow burn’ to pinpoint, and are often not identifiable other than over relatively long periods of time. Ultimately, Judges cannot order parents to parent their children in a particular way, and can only intervene when issues which would permit them to revisit (or make) parenting orders have arisen (where a child’s best interests clearly requires that, or where there are full-blown welfare or risk issues at large).
So, if you are one of the parents caught in the middle of such a situation, how do you manage it?
- Vocalise the elephant in the room. If you think there is a problem, be frank about it, and ask your co-parent to talk about it. Naturally some delicacy is required in raising problems, and if you cast the conversation in terms that it is ‘their’ fault, your co-parent will take it as criticism, and the discussion will likely go nowhere productive. So talk about your experience, and observations, but choose your words carefully. Give examples to illustrate what it is that you want to see changed.
- Ask for co-operation. Having identified a problem, you are trying to get assistance from your co-parent in managing it. Make suggestions as to what you think could be done to address the problem. Try to get agreement about change. Ask your co-parent to join with you in implementing that change.
- Offer co-operation in return. If there is a reason why things are not getting attention in your co-parent’s household, there may be ways in which you can help. That might mean having the children after school an extra afternoon per week, or helping with getting them to or from sports training. While you would be correct if you said that it is not your responsibility, think bigger picture – if a few more hours of your time makes your life much easier, and the outcome for your children much better, then it is likely worth it.
- Involve neutral parties. If observations come from you, they are likely to be dismissed, or taken lightly. That is par for the course when you have been through a relationship breakdown. You are therefore trying to illustrate your point in a compelling way. The best way to do that? Introduce the observations of a neutral party, someone who is approaching the issue from the perspective of what your children need. This might come in a variety of forms – your child’s teacher or guidance counsellor explaining to you both that school performance is slipping, that your child is consistently late to school or tired in class. Your child’s sports coach, saying that your child has not been attending training or missing games. Your child’s best friend’s parent, saying that they feel the friendship has become unhealthy due to excessive computer games, late night texting and unsupervised social media. You get the idea. The point is, criticism of your co-parent is more likely to hit the mark if it is coming from somebody who is unconnected with your own relationship, and is simply providing external feedback about your child.
- Get outside help. Life is busy, and we all have limitations. If your co-parent is less available, and that is the reason why things are slipping in that household, a professional service provider may help – a tutor to help with homework; extra sporting or music lessons after school to ensure that children are keeping at their hobbies and extra-curricular pursuits; a baby-sitter on evenings when you know that your co-parent works late; or a healthy home-delivered meal program when you know that your former partner is not great in the kitchen. You can, for example, offer to find a good tutor. Services such as tutors come at a cost, to be sure, but that cost is likely far more palatable than the consequences (or the costs of legal intervention). Your offer to contribute to these costs, or alternatively, to an (appropriate) reduction in child support (if applicable), may see the problem solved in the other household.
- Follow up. It often takes more than one attempt to correct household imbalances. A single meeting allows old habits to creep back in. Your co-parent is far more likely to ‘stick with’ the agreement if they know that there are further review meetings.
- Get professional assistance. If things are not working, suggest that you both participate in some family therapy, with a child expert (such as a social worker, family therapist or psychologist). That person will likely be able to identify if there is a problem, and if so, explain the importance of the problem being solved. They will also be able to help with problem-solving around that problem, as a professional is likely to have some fresh ideas which you may not have thought of. This process is likely to get ‘buy-in’ from your co-parent – after all, if an expert is identifying a problem, that is hard to ignore.
- Reward when reward is due. As ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ reminds us, people respond well to praise. Our former partners are no different. If they have really made an effort to make your 2 households more congruent, let them know of your appreciation, and how you think the results for the kids have been positive. It goes without saying that you should, in your own way, celebrate the results with the children as well.
- Measure results. If your attempts at change do not produce results, you may be left with no option but to return to your family lawyer, and take advice about the prospect of altering any existing parenting orders (or alternatively, seeking orders which introduce change in order to neutralise the impact of 2 such different households). After taking advice about the scope for further legal intervention in your case, you may need to give notice to your co-parent that, absent there being some perceptible change, you must ask a Judge to change the parenting orders (or make parenting orders) to alleviate the problem which has been identified.
Finally, stick with it. Being the parent who keeps life ‘working’ as best as is possible in the post-separation period is a lonely role when you have little or no co-operation from your co-parent. The situation can be strained when you and your co-parent have misaligned parenting styles, and where there those differences have created 2 households that could not be more different. Nobody thanks you for being the one to try to achieve consistency. Children rail against it. Your former partner may resist it. But one day, everyone will thank you for it. As much as you will feel like Public Enemy Number One for a while, think long-term. Children will better off if their experience across both households is such that they can, and do, achieve their potential. Remind yourself of that when you are feeling more like a warden than a parent. And use the tips above to help you get to that point in the meantime. Good luck.