by Barry Lillie
A new school year often presents change upon change for newly separating and separated families. What was once viewed as joyful changes in an intact family are now challenges that make parenting more complicated e.g. a family moves to a new home in a new school district? For our children of every age change has serious implications- making new friends/losing old friends; etc.
Kids ‘n’ Dad believes in limiting surprises in the school year that may lead to unwanted parenting conflict that impacts your children. The school year is an opportunity for separating parents to restore some order/predictability and calm to their children’s lives and to their own lives. This is part of what I call a process toward family renewal in an ever evolving form.
The new school year may be especially difficult emotionally for newly separating families. In many ways it can be like the first Christmas with its emotional connections, good memories and now the loneliness of being a parent absent from the excitement of the actual event. It is a clarifying moment for everyone that family life has changed…forever.
It is also an expensive time with new activities beginning and schools often asking for additional fees for this or that. Many of our parents continue to face economic difficulties that are part of the current economic environment. Separated families rarely have enough income to support a dad’s home and a mom’s home and it often comes down to hard choices about your 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 tracks. I though about my own children and the children of our clients who are struggling with that same aloneness and lack of belonging. My point is that doing this school thing right is part of overcoming what happened to this young woman as she grew up. As parents responsible for the separation we have a responsibility to ensure that our children feel included in each home and that each home is participating in their daily life. School is an integral part of that life.
The following is a short list of ideas to consider for the upcoming school year. Compile a personal list for your family. Check mark each of the steps from the list below that you did during the last school year. Consider what steps that you intend to take to do things even better in 2015-16.
- Both parents must together or independently establish a relationship with their child’s teachers and school. If the separation is new then a school visit is an imperative. The school is going to be 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 ‘together’ thing is too difficult then work out parallel arrangement that work..
- MEET THE TEACHER NIGHT IS COMING UP! Ensure that you attend the ‘meet the teacher’ and all other parents’ nights, especially 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. You can do both; you should do both.
- Make sure that you are up-to-date on your child’s school friends. If your child (ren) are 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 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 a co-operative parenting schedule. Respect it! Abide by 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 these expenses may be separate from the question of access and child support payments. Primary care parents need to know that denying access damages your children and is against the law.
- I mentioned last year my concern re: the use of Facebook, Twitter, etc. to take verbal shots at a former partner. These concerns remain an alarming and disturbing development. These verbal potshots are in reality not only an attack on your child’s other parent but also upon your child. They are simply unproductive for everyone. This is absolutely unacceptable! It is embarrassing/hurtful to your child and is making public what is essentially a private family matter. Another aspect of the use of the social media is the potential misuse and risk to our children. If we as the parents are hooked on Facebook and messaging, why wouldn’t we expect our children to model themselves in the same way? The problem is that most children are without the life experiences that we bring to social networking. This is particularly a problem for children in the tween age bracket. In separated families children of this age may rely on these friends even more and also have more time alone, etc. As such the good aspect of a child cell phone (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.
- Finally, if you have a new partner during the school year, take it slow and easy. Understand possible reactions of your child; deal with your former partner in a mature, honest and sensitive manner. Read up on possible reactions. Ask your new partner to be patient as you try to work out the new family dynamics. This can be a tricky dynamic for a new partner who can feel blocked out from being an involved step parent i.e. needed to do only the tough stuff of helping to build a new family home- not quite good enough to play a full role.
- PA Days offer an opportunity for additional parenting time for some parents and should be included in Parenting Plans. Also cooperating parents can reduce before and/or after school costs by sharing in providing care to their child. In addition grandparents – especially paternal grandparents who may now have reduced time with grandchildren-can also be included in school year planning. They provide a sense of family belonging to grandchildren who often grow up with an imbalance in their connection to both sides of their family; children also gain and the additional awareness of their own identity from this expanded access to their family.
- FINALLY acknowledge the other parent’s flexibility. Acknowledge each other’s flexibility. Your children will notice positive change in improved interactions between their parents.
I used to say that parenting through a separation is 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 pattern, 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. The challenge/test is to figure out a process to accommodate the crisis. The degree of crisis varies; but flexibility and resiliency by both parents is required in order to achieve the desired objective of calm and a new normalcy.
As separated parents we have an obligation to find solutions to those ‘life gets in the way’ happenings. The school year is an opportunity for parents to model for their child a cooperative relationship that demonstrates the parents’ love for their child- a love that survive all challenges on life’s uneven journey.
2013 Fernand Lozier Award of Excellence in Father Involvement
Kids & Dad Shared Support
900 Guelph Street, Ste 208
Kitchener, ON N2M 5Z6