I opposed all screen time when my son was a toddler. But after my husband moved out, I relented. Specifically, I let our early-rising son watch Fireman Sam in the morning while I sat in bed in a torpor with my first cup of coffee. Two years later, we moved to Los Angeles. Fireman Sam came too, my son continuing to watch him save the accident-prone residents of Ponty Panty early mornings from our post out west.
I hadn’t envisioned a parenting plan so inclusive of an animated firefighter from Wales, and later some crazy purple puff ball masquerading as a chicken. But my son loved them, and establishing routines—even around leisure activities such as a (marginally) educational television show promoting positive values—can help create continuity and a sense of stability.
Stability matters for children. Knowing what happens when translates into confidence and security, a sense of efficacy and control. Creating stability takes extra effort if you move, as we did, or if your child “relocates” weekly because you share custody with your ex.
If you’re divorcing and have joint physical custody, you can take the time to teach kids helpful organization skills. Not so organized yourself? Use the fact of your divorce as motivation to learn.
Five ways to control chaos:
1. Establish routines around positive moments.
We know that a homework routine helps kids build good work habits; scheduling regular times for fun helps define the shape of the week and reinforces the fact that your lives are about more than just the divorce. It also helps ensure you'll create positive moments, one of my Principles of Parting. I let my son watch TV for 30 minutes every morning. More active, regularly scheduled recreations such as tennis lessons, weekend gardening or religious services, weeknight cooking or dining with friends are other easy, positive ways to create positive routines.
2. Put everything in its place.
Many older kids I spoke to said they love having two homes in general, but dislike constantly misplacing clothes and books as they move from place to place. “Even now, I lose stuff in my house, but I don’t know which house I lost it in,” said a high school senior in New York whose parents have been divorced since she was four, and live within walking distance of each other. Identify a regular location for your children’s clothes, books and toys—and make sure they use them. Professional organizer Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out and Organizing from the Inside Out for Teenagers, recommends the kindergarten classroom approach to home organization. In kindergarten, the coloring area is in one part of the room, dress up in another. In a house, you can also establish activity zones. Coats go in the coat closet, school supplies on the desk, wet bathing suits on the hook in the bathroom.
3. Unpack immediately.
Once you identify where your children's items go, create a routine of unpacking immediately, and putting everything in its place. The Manhattan teen told me she’d drag her stuff from place to place in a big bag, never get around to unpacking, and then forget which items were in which bag in which home. You can make a routine out of putting away your children’s possessions, and use the occasion to help them reconnect with their sense of home at your place. I’ve written about how unpacking quickly can help adults feel more settled after moving; the same is true for kids who relocate from house to house each week.
4. Invest in duplicate copies.
Parenting in two places can go far more smoothly if you splurge on an extra copy of books, pajamas or other essentials that are easy to misplace. Here’s one area where spending a little can go a long way to decreasing conflict—another important part of helping kids flourish in divorce. If your ex constantly loses your son’s clothes, it’s less emotionally costly to invest in extra shorts than to constantly fight over missing items. Many older kids lug home a half-dozen heavy textbooks each day. Having a set at each place protects their backs and provides its own security—they know that they can complete their assignments, regardless of which house they’re in that night.
5. Consider an organizational app or online calendar.
Staying organized yourself can smooth transitions for your children. Use technology to help keep track of schedules, play dates, contacts and school projects. Some adults use a Google Doc or an online co-parenting site to coordinate with their child’s other parent. Divorced mother of two Traci Whitney went one step further. Traci wanted one place to record expenses, exchange notes, share doctor’s numbers and post photos with her oft-traveling ex. In 2012, she launched twohappyhomes.com, a perky, upbeat site that helps organize the massive production that is childhood today. “I get along with my ex fine, but there’s so much information that you have to share, and if you do it in two households, it’s much harder,” she said.
Having your children live in two homes was probably not your ideal vision for their home life. But as with so much in divorce, the challenge is also an opportunity to develop valuable skills that will improve your life and theirs, now and in the future.
* This post originally appeared on Wendy Paris's website, wendyparis.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.