Q: For the past six months my kids have come home from their mother's house and tell me that she fights with her boyfriend all the time. The things they tell me they say are very insulting and since my kids are old enough to know, 10 and 12, I know it must be true. Now they are telling me that they don't want to go back. Since we trade off every 3 or 4 days, it's getting to be a real problem. I'm not sure what to do. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: First, just because children tell you something doesn't mean it happened — at least not exactly the way it was reported — and they aren't lying. Kids process what they see using their age-based child sensibilities. It runs through their kid-brain and is reported to an adult, who then processes it as an adult, puts all those adult labels on it — and it becomes a huge problem.
Case in point, how many times have your kids said, usually punctuated with a lot of whining, "and then you yelled at me!" And, you're thinking, "That wasn't yelling. Yeah, I raised my voice, but yelling?" The next thing you know they're on their way to their other parent's home saying, "And, mom is always yelling!"
So, keep it in perspective.
Second, but it really should be, first — the real question is if your kids are going back and forth every three or four days, why has it taken you six months to say anything to mom? That's pretty close to an equal custody parenting plan. I can't tell you how many times I've told parents that I can't comfortably recommend an equal custody parenting plan if they don't talk to each other. It's emotionally abusive to make children live like that. It's not so healthy for the parents, either.
When your kids report something questionable, the first thing you should do is check it out with the other parent. And, if you are the other parent, never take it personally! You want your kids to feel comfortable at both homes. You want your kids to tell you the crazy antics dad or mom pull. None of the, "What goes on here stays here," stuff. Abusers tell their kids to keep quiet. To co-parent correctly — and to use good ex-etiquette — you consult each other regularly. This will be particularly useful in about five years when your kids tell you they're in one place and they're really at another. You will be glad you've laid the groundwork to comfortably compare notes. If you don't have that kind of relationship, your kids will "work the system."
That's when I hear, "Oh, my child would never lie to me."
Excuse me, but, bahahahahaha!
Back to the original question, this does not mean that mom and boyfriend aren't fighting. It just means occasional disagreements are normal. Of course, the goal is not to fight in front of the children, but if you slip because you're human, remember to demonstrate a proper apology and graceful acceptance — and try not to do it again. That's good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation" and the founder of bonusfamilies.com.