I need some advice on how to keep our children from pitting my husband and me against each other, or trying to get things over on us, against each other. A stupid example of this is that I let the cat sleep inside house tonight with my son because I feel bad leaving her outside. But I shouldn't have done it, because I know my husband is allergic to the cat. This is not really a big deal, but I could see it leading to bigger things in the future, like if my son asks me to borrow the car after my ex-husband said no. Help!
—I Let the Cat Out of the Bag
Dear Bag-free Cat,
It’s actually okay to have different rules in different homes. If you share custody of the cat, it is okay to have an indoor cat at your home, and an outdoor cat at his. You want to be consistent within in your own home, but kids really can adapt to two sets of rules, and the experience of doing so can make them more flexible and open-minded in the future.
That said, you and your almost-ex need to set the tone and the ground rules for respectful family life—in two homes. Agree up-front that neither of you will buy the kids things or set lax rules as a way to “win” them away from the other. Make it clear to your kids that you and their father are still a parenting team, and while you may have different opinions, tastes (allergic reactions)—as you would, were you married—you are both responsible for their well-being, and will be working together to make the best decisions for them.
You are still the parents and still the adults. You still possess all the great parenting skills you’ve used up to now.
Kids don’t get the idea of pitting their parents against each other unless you provide that example for them. Or rather, they may get the idea, but you do not have to give in to it, and you can make it very clear from the beginning that your priority is their happiness, not criticizing or one-upping their dad.
Even if you sometimes feel like sharing your rancor at their dad, or trying to “win” them away from him, you can curb this impulse in yourself. You can also apologize, and start again, if you do give in to it. And a little bit of gloating at our own parenting prowess is fine and normal, and happens in married families as well. We should be proud of our strengths and our efforts for our children.
In a divorced family, communication is key. I interviewed one divorced dad who told me that when he was a kid, his parents divorced, and refused to talk to each other. Their lack of communication let him, as a rowdy teen, do whatever he wanted. He would lie to both, saying he was staying at the other parent’s house, and then stayed out all night partying with his friends, many of whom were in gangs. Years later, he straightened out, went to college, got a job as a nurse, married and had four children. When he and his wife later divorced, he committed to staying friends with his ex and remaining very involved in his children’s lives, ensuring that they could not get away with the shenanigans that he had. He rented a house down the street from his ex, and has worked hard to maintain a good relationship with her, and to share information about his children's lives, and his own.
Some parents use a google doc or online co-parenting calendars to keep track of and share kids’ schedules, doctors’ numbers, expenses, etc. These can be especially helpful if you are fighting or can't communicate well in person or by phone. Check out Supportpay.com, divorceforce.com and coparenter.org
One more point: the best way to avoid trying to one-up the other parent, I have found, is to actively praise the other parent to your children.
Make a point of keeping the other parent’s positive attributes in mind, particularly when your children are manifesting a trait that is like your ex, or that you’d like them to develop. In my case, I’d like my son to develop more confidence and perseverance around physical activity. I’ve said to him, while rock climbing, for example, “Your dad is a really great rock-climber. If you stick with it, I bet you’ll be really great at it, too.” This is supportive of both of them, true, and an easy piece of praise for me to share.
The fact that we have different skills and strengths can be a real boon to us, and our children. My son is currently obsessed with Minecraft, which I can’t stand. But his dad is willing to play it with him, and my son is now far more excited than he was to go to his dad’s, where he can play video games for hours. From my perspective, this is a great development. I don’t want to sit in front of a computer building homes out of awful little blocks, and my son is showing more excitement about bonding with his dad.
An indoor cat is not really a gateway to the keys to the car.
At each stage of life, we’re faced with new challenges as parents. This is the current stage. Your best bet is to focus on setting a respectful tone, maintaining good communication, offering praise for your ex's strengths, and setting clear ground rules for your kids around not using the divorce as an opportunity to pit you against each other.
Good luck! Your concern for doing it well bodes well for your kids and your family.