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The Responsibilities of the Noncustodial Parent

Here's advice to help the noncustodial parent adjust to single parenting after divorce.

The Responsibilities of the Noncustodial Parent

You Can Do It!

Spending quality time with your children is the greatest gift you can give them. Communicating in a genuine way—really listening to them—will not only solidify your relationship, but it will also help them—and you!—get through this tough time.

Red Alert

It's best if both parents can agree on a single disciplinary policy. But the reality is often different. If you've punished or docked your children at your residence, don't expect the other parent to uphold your disciplinary measures at his or her home. Do continue with your punishment when your children return, if that's the deal.

The noncustodial parent will also be facing new challenges. Much of what is true for the parent with physical custody is also true for the noncustodial parent. The good news is that you have time for entertainment and your errands when the kids are with their other parent. Then, when the kids are with you, you can really devote that solid block of time to them. If you used to give little time to your children because you were too tired when you came home from work, you might not have developed the kind of fulfilling relationship you can now enjoy with the free time that comes from splitting the parenting duties post-divorce.

The noncustodial parent, often the dad, must make a special effort to maintain a close and loving relationship with the children. Jack Feuer, a journalist, a divorced and dedicated father, and the author of several books for divorced dads, has some winning strategies for forging bonds when a parent is not in daily contact with the kids:

  • Put a phone line in your child's room so you can call without going through your ex-spouse.
  • Send them photos of your time together.
  • Volunteer to coach your child's youth sports team.
  • Baby-sit when your spouse must go out.
  • Avoid the “Disney Dad” syndrome—the tendency of noncustodial dads to make every second with their children extraordinary. These fathers are continually taking them to expensive amusement parks among other special places, buying them everything they ask for, in short, turning the visit into one big playtime, Feuer says. Yet children need normality, so try to establish an ordinary post-divorce life with your child.
  • Share discipline with your spouse. Noncustodial dads are often reluctant to share in the discipline, Feuer notes. But it is important that dads participate in the discipline process and that they develop, with their ex-spouse, a style of discipline that is consistent in both homes, if possible. “My son goes to bed 30 minutes later on school nights at my house than he does at his mom's,” says Feuer, “but if he misbehaves at school, the punishment is the same at both houses. And if she says he cannot see videos because he misbehaved at school, he does not see them at my house, either.”
  • Give your children a sense of possibility, establish horizons, and teach values.
  • Come to terms with your divorce so you don't communicate feelings of anger and hostility to your children. If you are having trouble dealing with your emotions, seek counseling. “Because many men do not know how to experience strong emotions when they feel them,” Feuer says, “they might have the impulse to flee, removing themselves from the emotional lives of their children in the process.” Because this is the worst mistake a divorced father can make, Feuer suggests therapy as a viable alternative.
  • Treat your ex-spouse as a business partner. “Be civil and courteous,” Feuer says. “The research on the impact of divorce on children is often ambiguous, but there is one thing on which everyone agrees: The degree of hostility and amount of conflict between parents has a direct impact on how children will grow up. Do not ever fight with your ex-wife in front of the kids for any reason.”

“Your job as a parent is the most important you will ever have,” says Feuer, “and you must live up to your end of the responsibility. Be a dependable parenting partner, and remember, the kids come first.”

Don't Overdo It

You've probably heard the cliché about “weekend dads” (or moms) who spoil their kids by entertaining them at expensive places and buying more toys and gifts than they could ever hope to see at their other parent's home. This is a mistake. Your children need you, not amusement parks, shows, toy stores, and other places that might assuage your guilt or show them what a great parent you are. Occasional trips are fine, but your children will appreciate “hanging out” time much more.

Your Enormous Responsibilities

What are your practical responsibilities as a noncustodial parent? You don't have to buy the clothes for your children, but if you can afford it (even if you are paying your ex-spouse support), it might be a good idea to have a spare outfit or two at your place. Buying some toys for the younger kids is a must. If you cook, provide your kids with home-cooked meals, or even have them share in the cooking. If you're not into cooking find great take-out.

Regarding discipline, the same is true at your home as for the primary residence. Firm discipline with a loving touch yields the best results.

What if your very young children are having a hard time being away from their custodial parent? If you can't comfort your small children after a reasonable amount of time, be flexible and hope your ex-spouse will be as well. Bring your children back and try again soon, maybe for a shorter time but more frequently. In the end, you will have earned your children's trust in you, and you won't have risked their emotional well-being.

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