A recent national tragedy in Barbados, which will not be rehashed, has prompted this posting. Though reactive, the goal is to provide parents with some of the tools needed to successfully co-parent, beyond the at times muck and mire of contentious relationships between the Mum and Dad.
First, the relationship between the child and their Mum and the relationship between the child and their Dad, have nothing to do with the relationship between the Mum and Dad- zero- and should therefore be handled and treated as such. As an Educator, it is easy to assess which children come from stable homes (whether parents are together or not), and those where children are on the receiving end of turmoil in the household or as a result of the parent-to-parent dynamic. Children feed off of the energy or lack thereof of their parents- this is fact. As a result, it is important that parents maintain peace, and a productive and positive way of interacting with each other and the kids, that does not result in the trickle-down effect on the children due to contentions between the adults. Children are sponges.
But…everything is not always sunshine and rainbows so, let’s take a look at the realities of life and of parenthood- wanted, unwanted, planned, and unplanned. Children are the product of many types and forms of relationships- from the unplanned pregnancy/”oops”/”hook up”/”rebound” baby, to planned parenthood in a loving household, to planned parenthood in a relationship that has evolved to being a toxic household or a household that has unraveled…with many other scenarios under which children are brought into this world, welcomed or not. Regardless of how they were conceived, once here, the children are here and did not ask to be brought into the world. As a result, as adults, it is our responsibility to raise them in the most developmentally appropriate way possible.
For the purpose of this piece, we will be discussing instances when children are brought into this world with parents who are not definitively together, yet who still have the responsibility of raising a child/children. This is where co-parenting comes into play. The following recommendations can be useful for happily married or together couples, and to those whose only common denominator is that they have to raise a child, with no relationship between the parents outside of parenting.
So…what is co-parenting? Co-parenting is when two individuals share the duties of parenting a child, especially for separated or unmarried couples or individuals. It’s the result of a conscious decision by the parents to work together to raise a child though they may be divorced, not in a relationship with each other, separated, and/or no longer living together. In order to successfully co-parent, with success being that the relationship between the two parents is healthy, and the same with each of them with the child, where the sole focus is the health and well-being of the child/children they are the parents of, regardless of how the parents my feel about each other. Below I have outlined some characteristics of what successful co-parenting looks like, followed by what co-parenting is not:
Successful co-parenting entails:
- Open communication- Committing to open communication with each other (the parents), around matters related to the child/children
- Consistency across the homes- Agreeing upon the structure and rules related to the child, ensuring that they are consistent, implemented, and enforced across both households- children need and want (though they will be the first to not admit it) structure and a consistent routine, a sense of security and predictability with the structure, with both parents, e.g.- rewards for good behavior, meal time, curfew, bed time, homework time, play time, etc. should be uniform across both households. Sample universality- if you earn all A’s and B’s Daddy and I (after parental discussion and agreement) have agreed that you will be rewarded with a trip to Disney Land. The standard of A’s and B’s is consistent across both homes, with the reward being mutually agreed upon.
- Positive parent talk- children are smarter than we give them credit for. As they grow older, they will form their own opinions of their parents based on their personal experiences with them. There is zero need to try to influence their views on either parent because their opinions will be formed on their own. Plus, how you as a parent experience the other parent is not always how the child will experience their mother or father. That’s why some people can be terrible boyfriends/girlfriends and be an amazing parent or vice versa. Let children form their own opinions instead of them being influenced by negative talk about the other parent. As parents, we should commit to avoiding negative talk about the other parent in the presence of the child and should in fact, make it a rule to not engage in negative talk as the parent, and the same for the child- if the child has negative feelings related to one of the parents they should instead be encouraged to be productive about it and to talk it through with the parent they take issue with, teaching them conflict resolution and productive problem solving skills simultaneously. In the event that you are used as a sounding/venting board, be neutral.
- Unified parenting approach internally- this ties in somewhat with the idea of consistency across the homes. There should not be instances where a child can get away with stuff in one household due to for e.g.- a lack of discipline (discipline does not automatically mean spanking), and be held to much stricter standards in the other parents home. This creates opportunities for the child to be manipulative- children know who and what they can get away with based on experience- they are much wiser and smarter than we generally make them out to be. As co-parents, it is our responsibility to agree on boundaries that we are both comfortable with as it relates to behavior, discipline, rewards, punishment, activities, etc. to ensure consistency regardless of which parent the child is with. A unified, not a divisive parenting approach is what serves our children best. Not only is this common sense but there is research out there to back this assertion up. Maintain a unified approach internally, with the other parent.
- Look at the bigger picture- the decision to co-parent has nothing to do with the parents and has everything to do with the environment that is best for the child and most conducive to their development in a positive manner. Co-parenting is not easy because it requires compromise, deference at times, and a look at the picture- it’s beyond what you want to do and looks more so at what can WE do and agree on that works best for our child’s developmental needs. It is bigger than you and the other parent.
- Unified parenting fronts externally- in an environment where a child is being co-parented, parents usually live in separate households. As a result, it is crucial that the parents have similar if not the same rules, regulations, and norms, to decrease the likelihood that the child will be able to establish or take advantage of loopholes. It is ingrained in children to at times test boundaries and rules to see what they can get away with in both homes and so it is important for parents to have unified external fronts when interfacing with the child. Children test boundaries, especially if there is a likelihood that they will be able to get away with something they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to with the other parent, e.g.- Mum lets me stay up until 12 midnight on school nights whereas with Dad I have to be in bed by 9 p.m. This is where a unified parenting front needs to be established with a consistent bed time in both households, because as much as the child may complain or whine about it, they need the structure and consistency. A united parenting front with the child is highly recommended and a best practice.
- Ongoing updates- this ties in with the open communication. At times, parents may be disgruntled with each other. Though their feelings about the other parent may be valid- this has NOTHING to do with the child and should be kept separate. It is important to not only maintain open communication but to also maintain ongoing updates on things that are relevant and important for the other parent to know, e.g.- I just got a call home from the Teacher informing me that Jason scored the highest on his English exam, or Jason got into a fight today at school and is being suspended for one day, or Jania got her period today while at home/at school, etc. It is important to keep the other parent updated on what is going on with the child when they are not present as you are their eyes in their absence and vice versa- raising a child is a team effort. It is important that you keep each other informed about what is going on with the child, whether the news is rewarding or challenging, and to keep each parent in the loop so you both can discuss and decide on what to do going forward. Important progress or life updates should not be the onus of the child to share.
- Complement each other’s parenting style- one parent may be more effective at calming a child down, at talking with them to get more information, one may be taken more seriously when it comes to discipline, one may be more patient, one may be more affectionate. or may be better at creating structure, one may be better at sports, etc.…I say all of this to say- know your strengths and areas of growth as a parent, know the other parents strengths and areas of growth, and use them collectively to create a cohesive unit and parenting front with the child, where you “feed” off of each other as parents. Where you need to grow in parenting the other parent may be good at and vice versa- use it as a tool to become better co-parents and not to create strife.
On the other hand, below are a few descriptors of what co-parenting does not look like, so as to avoid being or becoming this:
Unsuccessful co-parenting entails:
- Blurred lines- regarding parent-to-child dialogue. Avoid burdening your child with any negative feelings you may have towards the other parent- whether the feelings are valid or not. Remember- who you know the Mother or Father to be may not be who the child knows them to be- they may have a completely different experience with the other parent. Even if they do have a similar experience, it is emotionally immature to bring a child into your gripes with the other parent; children will form their own opinions of each parent, so give them the freedom to do so on their terms, when they are ready. A child should never be privy to any negative feelings you may have towards the other parent nor should they be involved in any gripes you have with the other parent. That means- no trash talking about the other parent in front of the child, no trying to weasel information out of the child about the other parent and their dealings/whereabouts, don’t expose them to your parenting conflicts with the other parent- take the issue up with the person you have the issue with, outside of and independent of the child. Maintain clear lines and boundaries around what is discussed with and in the presence of the child, and what is not. No blurred lines.
- Being subjective/biased based on your experience- if your child vents to you about any frustrations they have about/with the other parent, don’t join the venting party. Be a listening ear but then redirect them to problem-solving- how will you bring up how you feel to your Mum or Dad, so he/she is aware of your frustrations? Is your ____ aware of how you feel? You can be a safe space or a sounding board but do so neutrally, allow them to form their own next steps, opinions, and/or conclusions about the other parent without tainting their views using yours.
- Parenting imbalances and inconsistencies- though it is tempting to be the “cool” parent and to be the one that is favored over the other, that is not in the best interest of the child. Children develop best when the parents operate as a team, with a united front, with structure, fun, and consistency fused in between. Consistency also helps your child transition back and forth between homes because the norms, rules, and regulations are the same- a united parenting front is key and more importantly in the best interest of your child’s social and emotional growth and development.
- Overcompensation to assuage the guilt- some parents may feel a sense of guilt when not rearing their child in a 2-parent household or from not being able to spend as much time with their child as they want to due to co-parenting. They may, as a result, feel the need to overcompensate or overindulge using material items and may grant the child’s wishes without limit, no matter how extravagant they may be. This is a recipe for a sense of entitlement and a self-centeredness disaster. All a child needs is a parents time, unconditional love, and support. Think back to your most memorable time with your parent(s). I can bet it had something to do with their presence/showing up, affirmations/encouragement, and less about what you were wearing that day or what you got.
- Bottling it up- if something about how you are co-parenting with the other parent is bothering you, speak up about it with the other parent, in a space that is child-free and not in an accusatory manner. Remember- the bottom line and common denominator is the well-being and health, growth, and development of your child. You can only do so productively when you as the parents are on the same page. Being on the same page doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing on everything; instead, it could mean reaching a consensus on what will be done going forward and committing to it. It is important to create a working relationship. This is especially important if historically you have not had a good relationship with the other parent in the past. Remember, your relationship with your child’s other parent has zero to do with that child’s relationship with the other parent. Keep them, and the associates feelings/emotions, separate. Open communication as co-parents is vital to the child’s healthy development and well-being. Seek to communicate to understand and to compromise, knowing that you both (presumably) want what is best for your common denominator- your child.
Disclaimer- this advice is given under the guise that both parents are in a space emotionally, socially, mentally, etc. where they can care for the child, and who do not put the child in harm’s way. Should one or both of the parents be abusive, unstable, or are a detriment to the child, the above mentioned recommendations are inapplicable and what is in the best interest of the child’s well-being is of utmost priority and importance.