Divorced Parenting: Whose Rules Rule?

by Brette McWhorter Sember

sour candy!"But Dad always lets me stay up this late." "At Mom's house we don't have to take the garbage out." Sound familiar? Separation and divorce means two homes for your child, and too often that means two completely different sets of rules. It's hard enough for a kid to comply with one set of rules, but having two is a guarantee for confusion and disobedience from your kids and resentment and anger between parents.

If you and the other parent are going to parent together effectively, you've got to have a set of universal rules in place for your child that is in force at both homes. But you and the other parent are individuals. And obviously there are a lot of things you don't agree on. No kidding, right?

So your two homes are going to be different and you're going to have different situations, different needs, and different circumstances when your kids are at each home. There are going to be differences in the way you parent. There should be. Your kids need both perspectives and both personalities. But they also need to know that they are living under the same basic set of expectations at each home.

Rules You Need

You need to create important, big, lifestyle rules that are followed at both homes. You don't want your child going from one house to the other, feeling like he or she is migrating between different countries where everything is different. Big rules include:

  • Homework rules: It doesn't matter if one parent is the weekend parent and the other is the weekday parent. Homework should be done at both homes and should be a priority in both homes.

  • Bedtime and curfews: Slight variations are fine, but try to keep it within half an hour.

  • Levels of responsibility: Children should have chores at both homes; you don't want one house to be a free ride and the other to be boot camp.

  • Age criteria: Examples include crossing the street alone, curfew changes, dating.

  • Off-limits activities: The biggies -- drinking, smoking, swearing, disrespect.

  • General limits: If you agree that TV or computer time needs to be limited for your child, then limits should be similar at both homes.

  • Consequences: You don’t need to go overboard and type up a detailed list, but in both homes, similar consequences should be applied for similar infractions, for example, no TV that night if the child doesn't clean her room.

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

So what if at one house the child must rinse the dishes and put them in the dishwasher while at the other he or she only has to clear the table? There are always going to be differences between the two homes, and the longer you live separately, the greater those differences are going to become.

You and the other parent are going to grow and develop on your own, and as the years go by, the differences between you will become more pronounced. The key is to have the same goals for your child and to find a way to agree about the best general ways to achieve those goals. Yo'’re not going to approach everything identically, and that's good.

How Do You Make Rules?

Before you separated, you were both living in home with your child and had rules in place you both understood. When you change your living arrangement into two homes, try to keep the same rules in place. It's easier for both of you and provides your child with continuity.

As your child grows, you'll need to change your rules. Avoid making big changes unilaterally. Instead, when it is clear something needs changing, try to discuss it with the other parent. Some parents find they can talk about these things on the phone. Others find it is best to have a parenting meeting and talk things over face to face. Even if you find you've got to change one of the rules on the fly, on your own, make sure you let the other parent know after the fact what has happened.

Cut Some Slack

One thing that's certain is that no one can follow all the rules all the time. So be prepared to cut the other parent some slack for not adhering to the rules, and be prepared to cut your kid and yourself some slack, too. Once in a while everyone has to ease up on the rules and that's ok.

Brette McWhorter Sember is a retired family attorney and mediator and nationally known expert about divorce and parenting after divorce. She is the author of:

Learn more about Brette on her web site.

Copyright © Brette McWhorter Sember. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.