Q: My 13-year-old son’s grades and overall respect for me and other adults – teachers, in particular – began going downhill last year (eighth grade), even before the shutdown. He began school this year with the same attitude, if not worse. In response, I have taken away most of his privileges, including his phone and video game. When we divorced four years ago, the judge ruled for split custody, so he spends three or four nights a week with his dad. That, unfortunately, is the problem. His father strives to be what you refer to as a “buddy-dad” and will enforce no rules. When he’s with his dad, he enjoys a smart phone, video games, and wears clothing that I associate with sociopaths. I feel like I am constantly taking one step forward and then one step back. Do you have any suggestions?
A: My first suggestion will fall on deaf ears, but they are not yours.
With a minority of exceptions, my second-hand experience has been that split custody arrangements are not in the best interests of children. All too frequently, they lead to exactly the sort of problems you describe. One parent ends up being a disciplinarian while the other, seeking to be viewed by the child or children as a “good guy,” undoes what his or her ex- is attempting to accomplish at every turn.
Split custody, meaning a 50/50 arrangement (or close approximation thereof), is intended to be “fair” to both parents involved in a divorce. In so ruling, however, family court judges seem to have lost sight of their mission, which is to rule in the best interests of the children, not the parents. Compounding the problem, split custody also creates the impression that neither lawyer has lost. By issuing rulings that preserve the self-esteem (or, in the case of attorneys, their reputation), judges often, but unwittingly, rule against the interests of the kids.
There’s no viable solution to this sort of problem, in which case I invoke the rule of muddling: Sorry, but you’re just going to have to muddle through this.
Let’s face it, if you and your ex- were able to parent cooperatively, there’s some likelihood you would still be married. The first thing you need to do is accept that there is no solution to this problem. Dad is getting reinforced for being a buddy. Furthermore, his incorrigible undermining of your discipline is likely a form of retaliation, in which case we can double his reinforcement. In effect, he’s a coward, but such is the nature of the divorced buddy-dad.
Accept the realities of your situation, but don’t give up the good fight. Continue to enforce rules when your son is in your care but do so knowing that you’re going to be in a one step forward, one step back state of affairs for some time to come.
There is always the possibility that your son will someday realize that you are the more responsible parent, but don’t count on it. In any event, stay your present course with grace.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.