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Parenting Time is Not Your Time

Diane C. Shearer, M.A.

Contrary to the popular belief of many divorced parents, assigned time with their children belongs to the children, not the parents. Oftentimes, parents get upset, for instance, because the other parent has signed up their child for soccer or ballet lessons that take place on their weekend. Then they complain that it's unfair that their children have to be involved in activities on "my time."

Part of this frustration stems from the word "visitation" that has been used by the court system for years. Most professionals are trying to get away from the concept of visitation to one of "parenting time." Especially for non-custodial parents who want to be a significant part of their kids' lives, the idea of visitation is an insult.

From this perspective, it is better to understand time with children as an opportunity to be a parent (i.e. parenting time). In other words, when divorced parents have time with their children, they should be expected to do all the normal things that parents (divorced or not) have to do for their kids.

The only difference is that when a child wants to attend a sleepover, for example, he or she must check with the parent who is assigned to them that weekend, and then it is that parent's responsibility to find out the details about the sleepover, figure out how to get the child there and back, and support the child in doing something that is developmentally healthy for their age. Telling your child "you can't go to that birthday party because it's MY weekend," doesn't serve the developmental needs of the child, but only serves the needs of the parent.

One of the ways to avoid unexpected time conflicts is to agree with the other parent about how many extra-curricular activities a child will be allowed to be involved in so that he or she can maintain a healthy balance. If possible, it is also a good idea for both parents to sit down with the children and let them know that they need to communicate directly with the parent they are assigned to for a particular weekend about their social desires regarding friends, parties, sleepovers, etc. Then, it is that parent's decision about whether or not the request can be accommodated. Tell children it will work better if they give their parents adequate notice of time and details to help them support their social requests.

This idea of "my time" can become even more magnified when teenagers appropriately want to spend time with their friends rather than their parents. No one argues that it is rare for a teen to want to be with their parents instead of their friends, but non-custodial parents experience real heartfelt pain when they are unable to interact with their teen more than a couple of times per month. So, it makes sense that they will want to find ways to be more involved with their teens. Instead of forcing teenagers to spend time with you every other weekend at your place, it is often a better use of time (especially with very busy teens) to go to them where they interact and live. In other words, once a child becomes involved in normal teenage activities, the parent does best to get involved with the child through attending their activities, transporting them to and from activities and time with friends, taking them and their friends out to dinner (all teens are up for free food!), and finding creative ways to be part of their lives outside of the coveted alone time that might be unrealistic at this age.

Kids instinctively know that their parents exist to take care of them, not the other way around. Parents who treat their time with kids as time to be a responsible and loveing parent, not time to get their feelings soothed, are more likely to create a healthy and rewarding relationship with their children.

Diane Chambers Shearer is a family counselor, divorce mediator, and parent educator in Atlanta, Georgia. She is author of Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families (Fairview Press, 1997) and publishes The Peaceful Co-Parent, a quarterly newsletter for divorce parents. For ordering information, call 770-985-2201 or visit her web site at DianeShearer.com

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