One of the most stressful areas of divorce is figuring out a visitation schedule for the children involved. While your kids still need you both, the simple fact that you are divorcing means that they have to separate from you, too. Most people don’t realize how difficult this is until they are actually faced with this situation, and some never manage to come to a reasonable arrangement with their spouse, thus leaving the “splitting of the baby” up to the Courts.
Judges are people too, and many of them have children, step-children, and divorce stories of their own to tell. Most, if not all, would tell you that a parenting plan that you and your spouse create on your own is far better than the visitation that they will impose on your life, but many couples will not take heed, leaving their contact with their children to chance.
What you could end up with, when you can’t agree on something better outside of Court, is what has become the “traditional” or “standard” custody sharing plan; that is, that the non-custodial parent has alternating weekends with the kids, plus a mid-week visit. The mid-week (usually every Wednesday) is either overnight, or if that cannot be accomplished due to schedules or distance between the now-divided households, possibly one or two dinner visits (after school until about 8pm) instead. The custodial parent has the rest, and they are not the focus of this article.
The non-custodial parent is traditionally the children’s father, although that is certainly no predictor of outcome in today’s world, where the mother might just as easily have this role. So while I do address Dad here, understand that these same tips are applicable to Mom, too.
The biggest complaint that Dads have about the mid-week visit is that it is “not enough time” to have meaningful contact with the kids, and that most of this “visitation” is spent doing homework with your darlings rather than having “quality time” with them. If you take this as your position, you will be right. But you will also miss out on dozens of opportunities to be very wrong, indeed, and to gain benefit from that. My suggestion is that you adopt the latter position, and prepare yourself to engage your children in a real relationship with you, one that occurs each and every time they see you.
That said, homework is an important component to this time allotted to you, and it must be dealt with first. Getting over that hurdle gives you the freedom to enjoy your kids, and I suggest that you do it. In case you’re wondering how you can master this feat, read on, you’ve come to the right place!
1. Homework always comes first.
Let’s assume for the sake of this article that your mid-week visit is an overnight stay, meaning that you pick up the kids either directly from school (between 3 and 4pm), or at some other location once you are off work (usually between 5-6pm). You then return the children to school the following morning. If this is the case, then homework must be done immediately. Most schools have adapted their schedules to allow time for kids to begin their homework while in class, and at the high school level, they have study hall. This means that your child’s homework can be mostly, if not completely, finished by the time you get them. This is particularly the case if you don’t arrive to pick them up before 6pm, as they have had a few hours to relax, regroup and hit the books while waiting for you. That said, don’t believe the “I don’t have any homework today” statement that they will surely make when you ask; you need to be on top of this, or you could find yourself losing the mid-week if your spouse has to continually clean up the mess created by the missed assignments while the kids are with you. Check their homework yourself, ask if there are any tests or projects coming up that they should be working on, and communicate with your ex and the kids’ teachers to keep everyone on track. You are the parent, and your job is to make sure the children do what they are supposed to do. I promise, there is still time for “fun”, but only if you are diligent in getting the homework out of the way first. Failing to do this will result in chaos, missed assignments, and last minute trips to the drug store at 9pm to get the poster board that we “forgot” to tell you we needed for a project that it is due in the morning. If the homework is handled right after the kids are out of school, you will have plenty of time to spend one-on-one with them.
2. Stick to a bedtime routine.
Although the mid-week visitation is your “time” with the kids, it is still a school night, and they need to be in bed at their normal hour so that they are ready and rested the next morning. Keeping the evening schedule means that they will be less tired and you will have less conflict at 6:30am the next day, when you still have to dress, feed and get them all to school. So the children’s schedules must be kept, barring a special event or that late-night homework assignment as mentioned above. Also, have the kids ready their backpacks and other belongings before hitting the sack, so that we are not looking for missing shoes and the Biology paper in the morning rush. Once they know, and you enforce, that they are expected to do the same things at your house that happen at Mom’s, everyone will plan and act accordingly, with you in the lead. Trust me; you’ll thank me later if you keep everyone on their normal routines as much as possible.
3. Keep you home stocked with the kid’s belongings, and give them a spot to put their things away.
This is surprisingly difficult for some parents to manage, and often leads to chaos in both homes. It is also true that there are instances when one parent always supplies kids’ clothing and whatnot to the other, who never returns the items. When that occurs, you will find yourself driving in circles as you travel to the other parents’ home repeatedly for the soccer shoes, backpack and precious blue sweater that absolutely must be worn with the plaid skirt. Do everyone a favor, and have personal items for the children in both houses at all times, including toothbrushes, diapers, school supplies, appropriate clothing and the like. Some things cannot be duplicated (like the Algebra textbook), and others shouldn’t be (such as the expensive football uniform), but the rest is doable. Involve the children in being responsible for those things that they must transport back and forth between you; even a three year old can be taught what to put in her suitcase when it’s time to go home. If they leave it behind, they don’t get it back until the next visit exchange. Discuss this as a group if it becomes a bad habit for your children, or a recurring issue overall, and formulate an agreement as to the consequences of leaving something behind that is needed later. Finally, designate a spot for backpacks and homework (such as the kitchen table or entry area) in your home. Knowing where to put things is 90% of winning the battle when it’s time to find them later.
4. Plan your meals with the kids ahead of time, and whenever possible, make the meal together.
Contrary to what you may have heard, “cook” is not a four-letter word (of the bad sort), and you, too, can become more than passable at this with very little effort. When you have one child, and you’re a bachelor, fast food seems to be the quickest and cheapest option for your meal planning. Doing this regularly does not save you money in the long run, and more importantly, causes you to miss out on some really great moments with your kids. Cooking and eating together is the simplest way to bond; you’re working as a team to create a meal, it’s fun and messy (also fun), and then you all get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Many a spontaneous conversation has erupted in the kitchen, leading to some really special moments of sharing that you don’t want to risk missing. There are also many practical life applications to cooking for the kids. They learn math (fractions when mixing ingredients and the like), it’s an immediately usable skill (we all need to eat daily), and even a little one can mix a salad or set the table, so everyone is involved. Maybe you can cook, and have earned the title of “grill master” or some such moniker. Perhaps now is the time to pass on your vast knowledge of the BBQ to the next generation. But if you are a stranger to the stove, I have absolutely no doubt that even you can manage to make a pancake or scramble an egg. One of my kids’ favorite meals is “breakfast for dinner”, which is either pancakes (real cheap and easy) or waffles (using great-grandma’s waffle iron—so exciting and fun for them) and bacon. Anybody can handle that menu, and once you get the kids involved in the action, you can all plan the next dinner together. It gives them something to look forward to doing with you, costs very little, and can be managed even on a school night. The burger joint has its place, I know, but that should be the exception, not the norm.
5. Involve everyone in a long-term activity.
Each week, do something together that takes more than one night to finish. For example, if your kids are readers or like story time, go to the library and check out the Chronicles of Narnia or the Harry Potter series to read together. Do a chapter or two each night before bedtime as part of their “winding down” routine. If they are movie buffs, go through all 6 StarWars episodes, one each week. When you are through, choose the next series together, or maybe movies on a certain topic (like WWII, if you have a young history buff). Most libraries have an extensive movie section, so you don’t need to spend money to have fun. Also, all kids love to play games, so teach them cribbage or Monopoly, and have tournaments. Whatever you choose, do it every week, make it fun for your particular age group, and do it together. Don’t forget the popcorn!
6. Minimize the after school activities.
I think that it’s great for kids to play sports, be in the girl scouts, and participate in the church youth group. Kids learn important life skills by participating in such activities, and giving their time to help those in need. The downside is that some families have packed their kids’ schedules so full of these things that each day is spent carting them off to the next obligation, with no time for rest or family. Kids are overwhelmed these days by the demands of their schedules, and most parents don’t realize the stress that they have placed on their children to be successful, popular, better then Mom was when she was your age, and so forth. If your child participates in sports or cheer or whatever, that’s great. My suggestion is that only one activity occur per child at a time, and that they take a break from all of it at some point during the year. There is no need to play soccer, then baseball, then basketball, then soccer again when you are 7. That is not a childhood; that is a regime that you are imposing on someone who doesn’t have the strength to live under it. Further, your mid-week visitation with your 3 kids should not be spent driving 1 of them all over creation to do his activity. If everyone loves that Johnny plays football, then you all go to the games and practices together, and have your mid-week on a night that doesn’t include that sport. It isn’t fair to you, to your other kids, or the child who plays the sport to not have your full attention during your time together. It is also very costly to keep your kids in sports, particularly after you separate and are each living on reduced incomes, so agreements need to be made as to who participates in which activity and who bears the cost. On a related issue, if the parent is the one on the softball team, or even coaches the kids’ teams, the same rules apply. Having your kid in the stands watching you until 10pm while you chase a ball is not visitation. Confer with the other parent (or her counsel) to exchange schedules and give each of you a night with the kids that is free from activities.
The bottom line to making the most of your time with your kids is that they and you both understand that it is “your time with the kids”, and that there should be as few distractions and obligations that take the time away from you all as possible. Wednesdays will be your favorite night of the week if you take the few hours you have and really focus on your relationship with your kids: cook together, read together, learn Spanish by doing homework together, play together. Love each other. They will look forward to these moments with you, and remember them forever.