Telling Your Kids about Divorce

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are going to get divorced. How do I tell my 3-year old daughter and 7-year old son what’s happening so they’ll understand that it’s about their mother and father, not about them?

A: Divorce is never pleasant for anyone. But even if it turns out to be a good thing for the adults, it’s often devastating to children. In a way, it really is the end of their world. It’s great that you’re putting your kids first. Here’s how to break the news.

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Want to keep your kids? Better lose weight.

If you had any doubts that there’s too much government intrusion in our lives, this one will convince you.

A 360-pound divorced dad of two believes that a judge in Canada has put his two children—ages 5 and 6—up for adoption because… he’s obese. Yep. It seems that being overweight is grounds for taking kids away from their parents. Personally, I find that frightening (and no, I’m not overweight).
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How single fathers navigate the delicate balance between their kids and their love lives

Nice Chicago Tribune article on the ins and outs of dating for single dads, featuring some quotes from me:

… Single fathers have a tendency, more than single moms, to “feel incomplete” without a partner in the house, so they risk rushing into a new relationship that may not be right, said single dad Armin Brott, author of several books on fatherhood including “The Single Father: A Dad’s Guide to Parenting Without a Partner” (Abbeville)…

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Co-Parenting and Sharing Custody

My wife and I will soon be divorced, and we both want to spend a lot of time with our children. We’re trying to work out a custody agreement that both of us think is fair. A couple we know that got divorced are co-parenting their children. But other people have told us that sharing custody causes problems for everyone. Who’s right?

The best way to maintain a strong relationship with your children is to spend as much time with them as you possibly can. Joint physical custody provides the best guarantee of regular contact with your kids. In most states, joint physical custody is defined simply as “frequent and continuing contact,” which covers everything from equally splitting expenses, decision-making, and time with the kids to arrangements that are basically indistinguishable from sole mother custody with occasional visitation by the father.

So pursue as much physical custody as you can reasonably manage. This is probably going to be somewhere between 30 and 50 percent. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, don’t shoot for more than 50 percent: your children need their mother just as much as they need you and your ex needs them just as much as you do. Why go for co-parenting? Simply put, because it’s the best thing for everyone.

  • Parents like it. Former couples who share physical custody of their children are happier with their custody arrangements than those who don’t. They fight less and are generally more satisfied with the overall outcome of their break-up.
  • Fathers like it too. Co-parenting dads are “more likely than nonresidential fathers to share in decision making about their children and to be satisfied with the legal and physical custody arrangements,” says researcher Margaret Little.
  • Judges like it. Parents who co-parent are half as likely to go back to court to settle their disputes as
  • Kids feel more secure. Seeing their parents break up can make children feel frightened and out of control and, perhaps, unloved. And if one parent disappears–or almost disappears–these feelings get worse.
  • Everyone wins. “At its best joint custody presents the possibility that each family member can ‘win’ in post divorce life rather than insisting that a custody decision identify ‘winners and losers,'” writes social policy expert Ross Thompson. “Mothers and fathers each win a significant role in the lives of their offspring and children win as a consequence.”
  • It increases father-child contact. Fathers who share physical custody of their children have far better visitation records and keep in much closer contact with their children than dads who don’t have as much time with their kids.
  • It nearly eliminates child-support default. The US Census Bureau found that over 90 percent of men with joint physical custody pay their entire child support obligation on time. Compliance goes up even further when adjusted for unemployment, underemployment, disability, or other legitimate inability to pay.
  • It promotes flexibility. In the early stages of co-parenting, some kids may find it a little confusing. But it usually doesn’t take them long to get used to the idea. Co-parented children quickly learn to cope with and accept the different ways their parents do things.


Most experts now agree that co-parenting is the best option. But they also agree that there are times when it just won’t work and shouldn’t be implemented.

Co-parenting works best if you and your ex….

  • Live near each other. Even though they’re moving back and forth between two homes, your children should be able to keep going to the same school and participate in the same extracurricular activities.
  • See each other’s value to the children. You and she must recognize how important it is for the other to have a healthy relationship with your children, and how important those relationships are to the kids themselves.
  • Can cooperate. You need to be willing to shelve your personal differences in the interests of working together. This means trying to come up with a set of common rules for behavior, discipline, and parenting style. And if you can’t agree completely, at least accept and respect each other’s choices.
  • Don’t fight in front of the children. Experts have found that the single most accurate predictor of children’s long-term adjustment and well-being after divorce is the level of conflict between the parents.

Co-parenting won’t work if you and your ex …

  • Are constantly at each other’s throats. Even supporters of co-parenting agree that it’s not a good idea in cases where the parents are verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive to each other in front of the children. Realistically, though, this is pretty rare. Although about 25% of divorces fall into the “high-conflict” category, only 10% of them–2.5% of all divorces involving children–show any kind of correlation between joint custody or frequent visitation arrangements and poor child adjustment, says John Guidubaldi, a Commissioner with the United States Commission On Child & Family Welfare.
  • Put your kids in the middle. Too many parents use their children to carry messages back and forth and to inform them of the other parent’s activities. Researchers Christy Buchanan and her colleagues found that adolescents with higher feelings of being caught in the middle were more likely to experience depression and anxiety and engage in more deviant behavior such as smoking, drugs, fighting, stealing than adolescents who experienced more cooperation between their parents.
  • Live too far apart.

Single Parent Discipline

Q:I’m a single father and I’m finding it harder and harder to keep my kids in line. When I was married, their mother and I could back each other up. But now that I’m alone, I don’t seem to have the energy to take a stand like I know I should as their parent. What can I do to regain control?

A: At one time or another, all parents struggle with discipline–establishing and enforcing limits, and getting their kids to speak to them respectfully and do what they’re supposed to do. For single parents, though, who are already probably pretty exhausted, anything other than putting food on the table and clothes in the closet may seem like too much trouble to worry about. But this is important. So if you feel yourself becoming more lenient, stricter, or just plain inconsistent, here’s how to stop.

  • Be consistent. Not only on a day-to-day basis right now, but consistent with the way you and your spouse used to do things before you became a single parent. In addition, try to work with your ex to come up with a discipline plan that’s consistent between homes and agree to back each other up on how you’ll enforce limits. If you can’t, you’ll have to be firm in telling your kids that, “in your mom’s house you follow her rules, but in this house, you’ll have to follow mine.”
  • Establish and enforce reasonable limits. No child will ever admit it, but the truth is that he needs to know who’s boss and he needs that person to be you. Setting your expectations too high, though, can also be a problem, frustrating your kids and making them feel bad or inadequate when they can’t comply.
  • Link consequences directly to the behavior. “I’m taking away your hammer because you hit me with it,” or “Since you didn’t get home by your curfew, you can’t go out with your friends tonight.”
  • Don’t worry. Unless the limits you set are completely insane, your child will not stop loving you for enforcing them.
  • Chose your battles. Some issues–those that involve health and safety, for example–are non-negotiable. Others don’t really matter. Does it really make a difference if your child wants to wear a red sock and an argyle one instead of a matched pair?
  • Give limited choices. “Either you stop talking to me that way right now or go to your room.”
  • Encourage your kids to be independent. “When parents do too much for children, to ‘make up’ for the fact that they have only one parent, the children don’t have a chance to develop responsibility, initiative, and new skills,” writes Jane Nelsen, co-author of Positive Discipline for Single Parents. But don’t go too far here. Your kids still need structure.
  • Understand your child’s behavior. According to Nelsen, kids misbehave for one or more of the following reasons:
    • they want attention
    • they want to be in control
    • they want to get back at you for something you did
    • they’re frustrated and they just want to give up and be left alone

    Trying to punish a child without understanding why she’s doing what she’s doing is a little like taking cough syrup for emphysema: the thing that’s bugging you goes away for a while, but the underlying problem remains–and keeps getting worse with time. The most direct way to solve this is to simply ask your child–in many case she’ll tell you. If she won’t tell you or doesn’t have the vocabulary to do so, make an educated guess (“Are you writing on the walls because you want me to spend more time with you?”).

Taking The High Road

I’ve been divorced for about a year and I can’t get my ex to cooperate with me on anything that has to do with our kids. She seems much more interested in punishing me than in working together. Is there anything I can do to make the mother of my children change?

Communication and cooperation are supposed to be two-way streets, but things don’t always turn out the way they should. No matter how much of a jerk your ex is and no matter how horribly she treats you, it’s critical that you learn to be a mensch (that’s a Yiddish word that means "a decent human being" or "someone who does the right thing"). Here are some things that can help make you the mensch you and your kids need you to be:
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