Summer is still with us but I am left with the unenviable task of getting your attention on your child’s upcoming school year. A new school year often presents change upon change for newly separating and separated families. What was once viewed as a joyful experience in an intact family may now present challenges that make parenting more complicated e.g. a parent moves to a new school district; shared daycare costs; etc.? Our children of every age face changes everywhere they turn from losing/making friends to the profound adjustment to both a mom’s house and a dad’s house.
Kids ‘n’ Dad tries to focus separated parents on the new school year in early August. We believe in limiting surprises that may lead to unwanted parenting conflict that impacts your children. The school year has the potential to be a year of chaos and disarray or an opportunity for separating parents to restore some order, predictability and calm to their children’s lives and to their own lives.
The new school year may be especially difficult emotionally for newly separating families. For many parents, more often dads, it may feel like they have been detached from a meaningful part of being a parent. For a separated family the passing of Labour Day is a clarifying moment; namely, family life has changed…forever.
On a pragmatic note it may also be an expensive time with new clothing, school supplies and additional fees for this or that. Separated families rarely have adequate income to support a dad’s home and a mom’s home and difficult choices must be made about children’s activities in the upcoming year.
The Globe and Mail (Facts and Arguments) recently published a letter by a young woman who wrote about the aloneness of being a child of divorce. As hard as she tried she grew up feeling like an outsider in her parents’ homes and later in their subsequent families. Her letter stopped me in my place. I thought about my own children and the children of our clients who struggle with that same sense of aloneness and lack of belonging. My point here is that getting this school thing right is part of overcoming what happened to this young woman as she grew up. Parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children feel included and are full family members in each home and that each home is involved in the child’s daily life. School is an integral part of that daily life.
The following is a short list of ideas to consider for the upcoming school year. What can you do in the upcoming school year to ensure that your child knows that they still have a loving family? Compile a personal list- your commitment to your children and the other parent.
- Both parents must together and/or independently establish a relationship with their child’s teachers and school. If the separation is new then a school visit is imperative. The school is a main source of information re: your child’s transition from an intact family.
- Plan to attend school activities. Co-operate to ensure that one or both of you are available for every activity. Include supervising on a school trip as a volunteer. Establish a schedule to share your children’s activities. If the ‘parenting together’ thing is too difficult then work out parallel arrangements that work.
- MEET THE TEACHER NIGHT IS IN THE FIRST 10 DAYS OF THE SCHOOL YEAR! Ensure that you attend this and all other parents’ nights, including report card meetings. Do not count on the other parent to be the conveyor of information. If need be give the school postage prepaid envelopes with your mailing address for your child’s Report Card, newsletters, etc. Schools are RARELY pro-active in ensuring that BOTH PARENTS receive all info. I know many separated parents who have never seen their child’s report card with all the valuable info on their child.
- If your child’s teacher is hesitant to provide duplicate material, be courteous but also insistent and follow through. Each parent needs to be in a position to help their child with their homework, etc. Many fathers who often have less than 40% parenting time may prefer only to do ‘fun’ activities. Establish a routine that balances both needs.
- Establish a tradition that belongs to you and your child (ren). It could be a reading hour before bed; a game or puzzle; an adventure walk. This new tradition creates a time for your child to talk and for you to listen…attentively.
- Make sure that you are up-to-date on your child’s school friends. If your child is of an age suitable to have a friend sleep over then these school friends form a likely pool of candidates. Your involvement in your child’s school activities allows you to meet other parents and create a comfort level for them and the children.
- Attend for certain and volunteer when possible for extracurricular activities that are outside the school- e.g. dance, hockey, and ringette. RESPECT the other parent on those nights that are their access nights. Do not make participation by both parents a problem. Set a good example for your children.
- Plan out in August a co-operative parenting schedule that updates the changing requirements of your child. Respect it! The schedule is the LAW UNLESS BOTH PARENTS AGREE TO A CHANGE! YOU CANNOT SIMPLY DEMAND A CHANGE!
- If changes need to be made then consider a process to make that happen. It could be done through a mediator if you are unable to make it happen cooperatively.
- Expenses need to be talked through and not simply a bill handed over with a demand. Dads in many cases need to know that school aged children cost money and that some expenses may be separate from regular child support payments. Primary care parents need to know that denying access damages your children and is against the law.
- A significant concern nowadays is the misuse of Facebook, Twitter, etc. to take verbal shots at a former partner. These verbal potshots are not only an attack on your child’s other parent but also upon your child. They are unproductive for everyone. They are embarrassing and hurtful to your child and make public what is essentially a private family matter. If parents are hooked on Facebook and negative messaging, why wouldn’t we expect our children to model themselves in the same way? This is particularly a problem for children in the tween (bullying/bullied) age bracket. In separated families children of this age rely on friends even more and also have more time alone, etc. As such the good aspect of a smart phone, etc., (safety, ready availability) may become lost to the negative side (vulnerability and obsession). Go on line, educate yourself on the risks to your adolescent and develop a strategy that works for your family.
- If you are newly separated don’t be afraid to initiate a meeting(s) as necessary with a key teacher/mentor/coach to your child. They can watch over your child and encourage participation and friendships.
- If you have a new partner during the school year, take it slow and easy. Understand possible reactions by your child; deal with your former partner in a mature, honest and sensitive manner. Ask your new partner to be patient as you try to work out the new family dynamics.
- Teacher Professional Days offer an opportunity for additional parenting time for some parents and could be included in Parenting Plans. Also cooperating parents can reduce before and after school costs by sharing in providing care to their child. In addition these times offer an opportunity for grandparents (especially paternal grandparents who may now have reduced time with grandchildren) to also be included in school year planning. Grandparents provide an opportunity to meet the child’s need to belong to their families.
- Don’t be afraid to praise the other parent’s flexibility when it occurs. Too often small disagreements contribute to a failure to acknowledge productive successes. Our children need to see our efforts to cooperate with each other.
I used to view parenting through a separation as a marathon, not a sprint. I have adapted my thinking- separation is a series of sprints that eventually add up to a marathon. Just when you think there is a comfortable routine, life gets in the way. Life in the way can be a remarriage or a move or a job loss/ financial crisis or a child in crisis or…. Every separated family in every school year is likely to face a difficult change(s) that may trigger a crisis. As separated parents we have a responsibility to find peaceful and cooperative solutions to those ‘life gets in the way’ happenings. The school year is an opportunity for parents to model for their child a relationship that captures the parents’ love for their child- a love that will survive the crisis of a family separation.
The return to school is an opportunity through these troubled, family times to be the engaged parent that your child needs you to be.
Send us your ideas that have helped your changed family find renewal. We will include your ideas in a future blog. The best way to renewal is often found from the collective experiences of our unique journeys.
Kids ‘n’ Dad Shared Support
Thanks to Barry for contributing to our blog. If you have any comments or questions, please contact us. –DCO Admin–