Can you believe it’s already time for 60 million American kids to go back to school? Didn’t we just start summer?
Mixed feelings are natural at this time of year for everyone. Kids are sad about summer being over so quickly. But they are likely to be excited and happy to see friends and get involved in favorite activities like athletics, music, or robotics.
But if you are a divorced parent navigating co-parenting, back to school is a little more complicated. Who pays for what? What activities will the child get to be involved in? Who does the school call if there is a problem? Who gets to chaperone the field trip? What school will your child will attend, near Dad’s house or Mom’s house?
The phone starts ringing at Weber Dispute Resolution at this time of year. Parents having trouble solving these issues come to us for help mediating their conflicts. We are glad they do, instead of taking their problems to court. If you need the same help for yourself or your clients, we hope to hear from you.
We offer these tips to help you start working through problems and considering your options.
Get on the same page about routines.
Don’t make school any more complicated than necessary. Kids do better if you and your co-parent agree on routines, and so will you. Meet before school starts without the kids in a neutral location to discuss the routine details first. Some areas for discussion:
- Emergency contacts and emergency procedures
- Instructions about academics and schoolwork
- Disciplinary issues
- Transportation and pick-up
- After-school activities
Once you agree, write it all down and share the plan with your children.
Deal with school expenses up front.
Custodial parents usually find themselves paying up front for back-to-school wardrobes and school supplies and then ask for half of the expenses. But even when parents agree to split the cost, sometimes one parent has very different ideas about how much to spend on things like clothes. Set a budget up front you can both live with. Keep copies of the receipts so you have a record of what you’re owed.
Share school supplies information.
You may be the parent in charge of school shopping, but your ex might want to be involved. It’s not uncommon for a divorced dad to take his child out and buy a hot pair of sneakers, backpack, or electronic device. Make sure you have talked in advance about whether Jim or Jane gets a cellphone or iPod. Purchases like this on a whim rarely end up without an argument and upset parents and kids.
Figure out what extra-curricular activities will be added – and paid for.
Outside of the classroom, many kids want to participate in sports, music, drama, debate, student government, robotics or other science competitions. These activities can build valuable skills and develop passions your kids may follow into careers. But they also put a strain on your schedule and your budget. When time and money aren’t unlimited, you and your co-parent have to decide up front what’s realistic for your child and what’s not. Who is going to provide the transportation, and pay the fees?
Coordinate everyone’s calendars.
There are going to be lots of events when school starts: sports and music practices, meets, science fairs, concerts, etc. And you think your workday is busy! Coordinate the school calendar with your parenting schedule. You want to make sure your child is able to attend important events. Have calendars in each house, one in your child’s backpack and give one to teachers or coaches to show which parent he will be with.
Negotiate attendance at school events.
Agree in advance to be courteous to one another at school events so you can attend at the same time. You can suck it up for the hour it takes every few months. If this is really, truly not possible, arrange to attend on different nights or at different times.
Meet the new teacher.
Divorced or not, it is always good to meet with your child’s new teacher. Let her or him know your child comes from a divorced home or a shared custody home. Children of divorce and separation often act out at school, have emotional moments, or just a bad day. Your child’s teacher should know what’s going on. But keep teachers and school personnel out of any conflicts between you and your former spouse.
Share information about your child’s education and progress.
Don’t play games or create obstacles for the noncustodial parent to get information. Unless you have a protective order, give permission to the children’s teachers, counselors, and medical professionals to share school information with both parents.
Arrange for duplicate notifications.
Information should be shared with both parents. It can be useful to arrange for separate, duplicate notifications about academic progress and school activities so one parent is not responsible for copying and sending information to the other, including anything like schoolwork or forms your child brings home; Do NOT make your child the responsible party.
A written record can help keep legal issues straight and problems from escalating. If you have a contentious relationship with your co-parent, why fan the flames at all? Arrange up front for a neutral third party like a mediator to be the point of mutual contact between you to ensure civility and cooperation.
Remember who school is for. It’s not a battleground to establish who is the better parent.
It’s great for you to be involved with your children, but don’t get into a competition with your former spouse. Your child is still dealing with your divorce no matter how long ago it happened while juggling the demands of school. Let school be your kid’s refuge, a place for him or her to have fun, learn, achieve and excel, and forget about difficult family issues.
No matter what, you can’t go wrong making a decision if you stop and ask yourself this: what’s in the best interest of my child? You get an A-plus.