In an ideal world, whether children are being raised in an intact family household or not, the goal would be to keep things simple for them by having them deal with just one set of rules. Unfortunately, most children of divorced couples will at some point or another experience situations where their parents are not on the same page. While sometimes parents can work with an expert to get on the same page, sometimes there are just fundamental differences in values or parenting styles that we need to accept (even if you don’t respect those choices), and this is where despite our personal preferences we need to teach our children to learn to compartmentalize and live with two homes, two sets of rules.
It is not easy for me to have to explain to my divorce clients that the court cannot force someone to parent a certain way– if someone is okay with a messy room, letting the child eat junk food and/or play video games all weekend, there is NOTHING we can do about that. We cannot control what someone does with his/her child during their time together– unless of course it becomes a true danger to the child, and that is when the authorities will intervene. Otherwise, we all need to learn to let things go, and I don’t say that lightly from a detached point of view, but honestly from a very personal perspective having dealt with the same issue the last nine years post-divorce.
As a parent, I have struggled with the message I want to send to my child, especially when he is getting a different message from someone else that he identifies with more. I’ve found it helpful to take a few deep breaths before saying anything in response to news that I may find disturbing. Before speaking, I choose my words carefully– the key is to strip out all negative comments and anything that may seem to suggest you are passing judgment. Stick to “I” statements, for example, “I don’t want you watching more than 3 hours of tv today.” Do not get into an argument about what goes on elsewhere– you govern your house your way, let others govern their house their way. Sometimes, to be quite honest, I just have to visualize duck tape, and I take that duck tape and smack it across my mouth. Some things are just better left unsaid.
Remember, language was created so that we could communicate with others in an effective manner. Before you say anything to a child, ask yourself “how will this information be helpful?” Be careful with your word choice– it matters, especially if you want your message to be heard and well received. Don’t attack, call names, or use sarcasm when talking about the other parent– just think you are talking about that child’s other creator, and like it or not one-half of that person is part of your child.
In the end, you don’t have to agree with your child’s other parent at all. And if you are put in a no-win situation, try to pick the lesser of two evils. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s say for example that the other parent does something that you do not approve of and now you have to weigh in on that. Well, you have 2 options: 1) put on a fake smile and try to appear that you don’t have a problem with the situation or 2) be honest, express your disappointment and explain why you would not make that same choice. Neither choice is a fun one, but to me being honest is the lesser of these two evils, and at least I can live with myself by being true to my own values, so that is why I’d go with #2 each and every time.
Two homes with two sets of rules is not what any of us want for our children, but when it is their reality you have to be able to adapt and help them cope. Stop wishing things were different and instead teach your kids to filter and compartmentalize. There’s actually a book, “Mom’s House, Dad’s House” that has more concrete tips for divorced parents on this topic. Is this ideal? Of course not, but at least know that you are not alone. This is a very common problem, and there are work arounds.
I gave up banging my head against the wall long ago, and instead I had to find new ways around it. You can too– by remembering that there is a reason your marriage did not work out, and luckily you no longer have to deal with that other person’s ways, but your children do, so help them figure out a pathway that let’s them build a bridge between mom’s house and dad’s house.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.