At the start of a new school year, there are many possibilities for mischief and conflict when parents, step-parents and other relatives are involved in a child's life. Most or all of the problems can be avoided when the parents and others act as mature adults and focus on what would benefit the child the most. Here are 7 tips to help avoid and minimize problems. 1. Let the school know from the beginning who the significant adults in the child's life are. Unfortunately, many parents play games and try to take sole control over the child by omitting mention of the other adults on official school forms. Every school has (and needs) contact information on each child. Many parents try to prevent access to the child and monopolize school information. “Locking out” the other adults can also hinder the teachers' ability to learn about the child and understand his or her special needs or skills. Teachers are used to dealing with blended families (many are step-parents themselves), so they would certainly not be judgmental about various family situations, especially where the adults are cooperative. 2. Parents living apart should share all school and extra-curricular activity information, even if they really dislike the other adults. Parents should always exchange information and should update each other for the child's benefit. Children feel more secure and loved when they see all parents and adults supporting them and showing up for events. Parents should fore go the power they possess when they have exclusive information about the child. The focus should always be on what benefits the child, not what gives more power to a parent or what creates an opportunity to make the other parent look bad. When kids get awards or participate in sports, they would much prefer to see a larger crowd of supporter cheering them on and getting along well (or at least civilly). 3. Parents should set up consistent rules for after school at each home. While it is probably impossible to establish identical disciplinary rules for two or more households, the parents should regularly discuss how to deal with issues and work out a common response to each situation. Parents should not let the child play them against each other and should not use discipline imposed by the other parent as an opportunity to be the good or nice parent by not imposing the same sanctions. After-school schedules should also be coordinated so that the child can develop consistent habits and activities, regardless of where the child is. 4. Organization and coordination are critical when there are two or more homes. Agreements need to be reached about how to handle clothing, shoes, coats, etc. so that they do not collect all at one house or so that they are not to be found when needed. Similarly, books, school supplies, computers, etc. need to be planned for. Things moved from house to house should be kept in easily accessible places where the child will remember to pick them up on the way out. Likewise, the child needs to be sure there will be adequate supplies to do any necessary school work. Sometimes, it works out best to just buy duplicates of some items, but with really expensive items, such as computer equipment, some books and some sporting gear, it may not be practical to have duplicates. In those situations, sharing may require a lot of attention to detail. 5. Disagreements should be resolved away from the child. As in most other issues, disagreements between adults should be discussed where a child cannot hear the discussions. It would be best for the child to even not be aware of the problems. If need be, the parties can meet at a neutral public location (without the child) to talk about the issues.
6. Parents should not allow public displays of anger and bad behavior. If problems come up between the parents, they should avoid creating a scene at any public events. A child will feel much better if he/she sees the adults all getting along well. There will be plenty of opportunities for the adults to talk privately about whatever concerns they have. Each parent should be sensitive to the feelings of the other parent, especially when step-parents are involved. Likewise, an adult should act in a mature fashion and accept that a former spouse may be involved in a new relationship. Keeping in mind how bad adult behavior can embarrass or hurt a child may help parents avoid the craziness.
7. Step-parents should also be able to participate. Like it or not, step-parents often become very involved with their spouse's children and develop deep bonds with the children. Mature parents can understand that a child can have loving relationships with adults other than his/her parents. Children shouldn't be forced to choose sides. Just as they may have many friends their own age, they can develop relationships with several adults at once without diminishing the relationships with other adults. Besides, each adult brings different skills and abilities to the relationship with the child. As long as the child is happy, the parents should not try to establish ownership of the child or limit access to him/her.
These thought-provoking ideas are based on an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on August 28, 2007. They are good advice for any parents, step-parents or other adults involved in raising children. The most important action to take is to always consider what the impact of various behavior choices will be on a child.