Ten Rules of Good Ex-etiquette for Parents

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After a break-up, parents often ask for a list, something to which they can refer, possibly hang on the refrigerator, that will help them deal with their ex in a positive manner–especially if they are really angry and their kids are around. Ironically, we ended up with ten rules and as I read the final list I realized they were very similar to the Ten Commandments–only in the Ten Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette for Parents the welfare of the children is the basis on which decisions are made.

The 10 Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette for Parents
1. Put the children first.
2. Ask for help if you need it
3. NO BADMOUTHING.
4. Biological parents make the rules; bonusparents uphold them.
5. Don’t be spiteful.
6. Don’t hold grudges.
7. Use empathy when problem solving.
8. Be honest and straight forward.
9. Respect each other’s turf.
10. Compromise whenever possible.

The cornerstone of the list is rule #1, Put the children first. When you do, it makes it very easy to make the right decisions. The key? Remove your own interests, hurt, resentment, or anger and use the children’s welfare as the criteria for your decisions. All of a sudden that ex who drove you so crazy seems like no big deal compared to the welfare of your child. You find yourself thinking, “Well, maybe it is OK if he takes Johnny to his football game on my week…”

Rule# 2 reminds divorce or separated parents to ask each other for help if you need it. So many times I have heard parents refer to themselves as “single parents” as they explain that now that they are no longer with their child’s other parent they are raising their kids all by themselves. At times we all feel like that, but more often than not, it’s really not the case. Even though your ex may frustrate the heck out of you, if he or she sees their child on a regular basis, helps with expenses, and shows up to games and recitals, you are not a “single” parent. You do have help if you ask for it. Thing is, it’s tough to ask–and that’s where the 10 Rules of Good Ex-etiquette for Parents can help.

And, here’s another crazy concept–asking the bonusparent for help. Odds are if you have been working on bonusfamily status, they will be willing to help, too. I remember the first time Sharyl (my bonuskids’s mother) asked me for help. Her son, Steven, was waiting for her after school and she was caught in traffic. Her ex (Steven’s father/my ex) and I lived right around the corner from the school, but it wasn’t Steven’s week to be with us, so it was not our responsibility to pick him up. As it got later and later and traffic wasn’t moving, Sharyl finally broke down and called me. I could hear in her voice that it wasn’t something she wanted to do, but her explanation was the right one–“I knew you wouldn’t want him sitting alone after school, either.” Thing was, it was my pleasure to help her. All she had to do was ask. We both loved the same child, and her asking for my help set the precedent for working together in the future.

#3 No badmouthing. Divorced or separated parents often forget that their children have dual loyalties. Children love Mommy AND Daddy, not Mommy OR Daddy. When you say something bad about the other parent you are putting your child right in the middle and asking him or her to choose. Kids know inherently they are half mom/half dad  Say something bad about either one of their parents and a child will personalize it. You are insulting half of their DNA, half of them. Even something small like, “Your mother is always so forgetful!” when mom is late can start children personalizing their feelings and as a result feel bad about themselves. Not to mention, most of the time badmouthing backfires.  It can drive the child away from the parent who says bad things because its human nature to want to protect the underdog. “You are saying something bad about my Mommy!” translates into “I don’t want to go over there anymore.  He makes me feel bad.”

Here’s a familiar scenario: (The roles of Mommy or Daddy can easily be reversed.)

It’s the child’s time to go to Dad’s, and he tells Mom he doesn’t want to go. Mom asks the child, “Why do you feel bad about going to Dad’s?” and the child can’t really put into words why he feels bad, he just knows he feels bad when he’s around Daddy. (It was because last time he was with Daddy, he said Mommy was late all the time.) Daddy, in turn, thinks Mommy is trying to manipulate the child into staying with her because he can’t pin down why the child doesn’t want to come over. And, it all started with something as simple as, “Your Mommy is always so forgetful” or “Your father is NEVER on time. I HATE waiting for him.”

#4 Biological parents make the rules; bonusparents uphold them. This is the only rule that carries a preface. If the bonusparent is the primary caregiver of the children or he or she also has children in the home and is trying to coordinate rules already in place, then he or she should be consulted. But, for the most part, parents make the rules for their children. Bonusparents support the rules made by the parents. Warning to bonusparents:  Don’t try and take over, even in the name of “They are so unorganized!”. One of the biggest mistakes a bonusparent can make is to attempt to interfer in a well-established co-parenting relationship. It will alienate everyone–the ex, your new partner, and the kids. If you hear, “You’re not my mother (or father) you are asking the children to do something other than their parents have asked.  If you hear, “You are not their parent!” You may be overstepping your bounds.

#5 Don’t be spiteful.  #6 Don’t hold grudges.  If you stay angry at your ex, then you are making your decisions with that in mind, not the kids. You will find yourself reacting rather than being proactive when problem solving. Spite, revenge, and holding grudges prevents you from putting the kids first.

#7 Use empathy when problem solving.  This can be simplified by saying, “Don’t ask your ex to do anything you wouldn’t want to do.” If you don’t like your ex being late, don’t be late. If you want to switch weekends because you have something planned, don’t say no when he or she asks you for the same thing. Put your self in their shoes.

#8 Be honest and straight forward when problem solving.  Lying, manipulation, evading the issue, these are all things that get in the way of positive communication. If you want a positive response, be positive and honest with your ex. Lie to your ex, or tell the kids not to tell the other parent something, or lie about why you were late, or your intention, will only get you into another argument. Demonstrate integrity. If your ex lies, that’s on them. The children will see it and make their judgments accordingly.

#9 Respect each other’s turf.  Once there is a break-up your children have two homes. And, as much as both parents want to dictate policy, they really can’t. Divorced or separated parents must learn to respect each other enough to trust that the other will make the right decisions for the children. This does not mean that you can’t discuss things–in fact, you should coordinate as much as possible. Bed times? Homework rituals?  Discipline?  But, once the decision has been made, it’s done.  Harping on the other parent to do it your way will only get you into another argument–or your ex will avoid you.

An easy way to cultivate the respect of an ex is to simply ask their opinion. Ironically, that’s about the last thing an ex wants to do. Some see it as a sign of weakness, a loss of power. First, power comes from within, not whether an ex says it’s okay. Second, asking for your ex’s opinion demonstrates respect. It’s a gesture as much as a tool for problem solving. You don’t have to take the advice, however, when your ex feels heard, you are both well on the way to solving the problem.

#10 Compromise whenever possible. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “At least now I don’t have to listen to her (or him) now that we have broken up!”  Ironically, it may be even more important now than when you were together. Compromise is the great equalizer and it begins with listening to your ex’s concerns. The simple act of listening validates both parties and it’s much easier to find common ground, the basis for compromise, when both sides feel heard. If you listen, use empathy when problem solving, are honest and straight forward, don’t hold grudges, aren’t spiteful, and put the children first, you are using good ex-etiquette and it will be easy to find the compromise in the best interest of your children.

Here’s an example:

A parent says to her ex, “As usual, I’ll be at your house at 6:00 on Saturday night to pick up Mark for the weekend. Did I tell you my mother is coming into town on Friday? It’s too bad she has to leave the first thing Saturday morning.”  What is the parent really trying to say?  She’s trying to say, “My mother is coming into town on Friday night and I know she would like to see Mark. I would like to pick him up on Friday night instead of Saturday so he can spend some time with his grandmother.”

Why doesn’t she just come out and say that? In most cases it’s just history. If there have been disagreements in the past, a parent may be gun-shy when asking for an occasional change. She anticipates an argument and just doesn’t want to go there.

To ease tensions and make Mark’s life easier, the listening parent might suggest a workable compromise, such as, “Why don’t you pick Mark up on Friday after school so he can visit with your mother, and then bring him back after she leaves on Saturday?”

This compromise seems obvious to the outside observer, but not to parents who don’t use good ex-etiquette. It’s unlikely a warring parent will ever suggest that the other parent has more time with their child. However, that’s not exactly what Dad suggested. The compromise was a schedule change, not more time with Mom.  As time moves on, that may be the ultimate solution, (Just pick him up on Friday…) but for now, simply listening to what Mom needed and suggesting a solution was the compromise required to solve the problem.  Baby steps. That’s good ex-etiquette.

Some of this article was borrowed from the book, Ex-etiquette for Parents:  Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation, by Jann Blackstone and Sharyl Jupe.

Dr. Jann Blackstone, who specializes in child custody, divorce, and stepfamily mediation. She is the author of seven books on divorce, remarriage, and co-parenting, specifically, Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce and Separation, Ex-Etiquette for Weddings, and Ex-Etiquette for Holidays. Dr. Blackstone is also the founder of Bonus Families,501 c3 non-profit organization dedicated to peaceful coexistence between divorced or separated parents and their combined families.