August. The dreaded time for kids to go back to school. Most kids hate it. But, you love it for the peace and relaxation that lies ahead. But, for many, August is the child support system Awareness month. Yeah, that’s right. The states have instituted a Child Support System Awareness month to educate and focus their efforts to collect child support arrears from what many believe are ‘dead beat dads’.
The Child Support System’s Child Support Awareness month was started back in 1995 by states and municipalities across this great land. But, the implementation of this plan was one more focused on funding the STATE than funding needy parents in want of child support arrears.
The truth is in the numbers, so leave your emotions at the door!
The Child Support System – Every State Wants A Piece of This Action
You can’t avoid the emphasis on deadbeat child support collections dominating the news this month, second only to the Olympics. Here are a few of my favorite headlines, filled with biased, emotionally charged wording:
– “Texas Cracks Down on Deadbeat Parents”
– “New Jersey Rounds up 1221 Deadbeat Parents Owing $25.4M”
– “New Mexico Governor Announces Crackdown on Parents Failing to Meet Child Support Obligations”
Even the Feds have a Deadbeat Parent Punishment Act to catch parents who move from state to state to avoid paying up.
News outlets revel in hyping the national tragedy of unpaid child support exceeding $100 billion. Very often though, they leave out the details behind these numbers – important details!
First, this is the total running tally of unpaid support since data was kept, meaning decades of debt. The children owed the first $1 million of this figure are likely parents or even grandparents themselves now!
Parents Can’t Pay From Behind Bars
The first article in this series covered how much of TODAY’s unpaid child support is actually accumulated by people in PRISON, who with their almost zero dollars income, are not likely to make those payments.
Even armed with this bit of common sense knowledge, the government is continuing to add up their debt while also piling on interest. Read the detailed article here.
The Numbers Will Blow Your Mind
Following the money, Part 2 of this series reveals how the National Department of Health and Human Services was responsible for the Enforcement Division of the collection effort. But wait! They also reported (through a separate division) who owed the child support based on annual income and the likelihood of collections.
Turns out, those making a livable wage owed only a small fraction of the total debt! The rest of the debt resided with those barely getting by, and this same federal agency labeled that debt as largely un-collectable! The shocking details are all here.
The Beatings Continue Regardless of Results
It’s terrible how so many parents out there are struggling to make ends meet at a poverty-level wages.
Both parents are struggling to provide for their children. Yet, instead of focusing on ways to educate parents to improve their job skills and wage potential, the authorities attack the parent who can’t keep up.
New Mexico, for example, as part of it’s annual crackdown on deadbeat parents, publicly lists the names of parents with delinquent child support.
Are banks allowed to list all those who are late with their payments? A bank would probably be slapped with a huge lawsuit, but I guess the government doesn’t have to follow the same rules.
Where’s The Money – According to Uncle Sam
So where are these agencies focusing their efforts? You can’t nail it down for all states, but the Department of Health and Human Services provides a clue about where recoverable money resides for those in arrears.
HHS reports suggest that once a parent with delinquent child support made over $20,000 per year, their debt was mostly collectable. But, only 17% of the “deadbeats” fall into the collectable category.
The rest – the vast majority- had little or no income.
The data shows that about three-fourths of the debtors have no reported income, or make less than $10,000 per year! This income group is also categorized by this same agency as one whose arrears are virtually “un-collectable.”
But hey, this is where the debt resides, so the agencies choose to focus considerable efforts towards collecting child support debt from those that can’t afford to pay it!
It’s pretty clear how bloated the budgets are for federal and state collection and enforcement agencies. The government collection agencies could pay off the total child support arrears in the country in just a few short years with only their fat annual budgets.
The government collection agencies could pay off the total child support arrears in the country in just a few short years with only their fat annual budgets.
But these agencies are getting results, and their results are widely publicized in the news. As an example, let’s look at New Mexico again.
The Poster Child For Child Support Collection
New Mexico proudly received a national child support enforcement award for the “Most Improved System”.
This year, they are on track to exceed $140 million in back-due child support collection. That’s a pretty impressive number – that leaves out the crushing impact to those who pay into the $140 million.
The New Mexico Division of Child Support Enforcement has an annual budget of $34 million, roughly 25% of the collections. So, for every dollar the tax payers put in, they received four. Sounds good, but there’s more to the story.
The problem with just showing the raw collected amounts is traced to the Bradley Act in 1986 that allowed states to add interest to arrears. So how much of that $140 million is actually money that was due to the parent versus interest that goes to the state? The answer is not advertised, but we have great examples from real folks.
A Payment Scheme Like You Wouldn’t Believe
Recently, a reader shared his story. Let’s call him Joe. His kids are now grown and out of the care of their mother. He made scheduled child support payments until he hit hard times and missed some. Eventually, Joe got back on track and made payments until his kids were grown. Now he’s making his payments for the overdue amount. Joe pays $100 per month.
Sounds good. He’s paying his debt. Right?
The story gets ugly though, when Joe shares the breakdown of his debt payments. About $25 of his payment goes to his ex. The rest? $75 goes to interest on his debt and goes to the state. Yeah, they can charge interest, remember?
Math time! 75% of that collection goes to interest…only 25% to the parent. Apply that to New Mexico’s success story.
Just Suppose …
$140 million in collections…outstanding! 75% back to the state, or $105 million. So $35 million goes to the parent that’s due. Considering that their annual budget, invested by the taxpayers, was, $34 million, the result was only $35 million to the parents and kids that needed the money, the kids that needed school supplies.
That’s pretty close to a 1 for 1 ratio, meaning the taxpayers gave the state $1 and the state gave $1 to the parent in need. After that, the state made over $100 million profit from interest. This is interest collected from people struggling to meet their child support obligations, struggling to make ends meet.
We aren’t talking about making $100 million from creating an industry that provides products and jobs for the community resulting in taxes collected on industrial revenue. This is money “taxed” on the poor.
Essentially, the states are cracking down on struggling parents to fund their programs. The states are publicly vilifying struggling parents, while crushing them with insurmountable interest and debt.
Wouldn’t the agency funds be better spent by educating parents, improving their income, and then taxing their income? The kids would have a better quality of life and the state would be funded to serve the people, not turn them into indentured servants.
There’s Gotta Be A Better Way
We must create a better system. The money invested is clearly wasted. Currently we are treating the symptom of the problem, missed payments, as criminal behavior. The state is spending countless taxpayer dollars to collect back due child support from those that can’t pay, as well as interest to pad the state’s bottom line.
We need a system to treat the cause of the problems. Unpaid child support is caused by low incomes, poor job skills, and skyrocketing child care costs.
Children of divorce will be better served if the funds budgeted for child support enforcement and collections are spent fighting the poverty cycle!
Are you fed up with the broken child support system? What is your child support experience? Share your opinion in the comments below.
Consider me frustrated, frustrated at ‘the system’ and its persistence in going after deadbeat dads and their alleged child support arrears. Don’t get me wrong. Real deadbeats are the scourge of the human race for not taking financial responsibility for their offspring. And, as the mid-term elections are grinding to…
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Consider me frustrated, frustrated at ‘the system’ and its persistence in going after deadbeat dads and their alleged child support arrears. Don’t get me wrong. Real deadbeats are the scourge of the human race for not taking financial responsibility for their offspring. And, as the mid-term elections are grinding to a close these next couple weeks, I’m sure there will be many politicians proclaiming that the increase in households living below the poverty line is directly related to the increase in children raised in single parent households.
There are numerous websites that list and profile deadbeat dads in an attempt to identify them, expose them, find them and shame them into financially supporting their offspring. This is, among other things, no better than the public stocks located in the town square of our early American pilgrimage when those that broke the covenants of public reason and law were publicly displayed for rebuke and humiliation by the local citizens.
Many of these websites run public forums, and one such site run and supported by the Canadian Government has such a public forum as well. So, I joined in on the discussion about going after child support arrears.
Everyone was applauding the site and its goal when I arrived onto the forum. I chimed in and mentioned the first article in this series (which the forum managers removed shortly thereafter, but whatever) that plainly lays out the facts behind the myth that dead beat dads are the best un-tapped source of income for children living in poverty.
Note: Haven’t read it? No prob! Check it out here.
None in the forum knew how many so called “no-loads” were actually in prison with no chance at making an income. Even with that knowledge, many didn’t care. I received strongly-worded counterarguments about the many dads who hide income to avoid paying to support their children.
If you’ve read my work, you know how much I just love broad generalities and hyperbole! So, I moved the throttles to afterburner and asked about the moms who refuse to get jobs to artificially keep their incomes low to increase their child support award. My question also had no basis in fact, but since I was “discussing” grown-up topics with folks who weren’t, why not poke the bear!?
Cutting through the emotions, a real question emerged: What about parents with past-due child support arrears who aren’t in prison? Why aren’t they paying?
An excellent question, it turns out! And the FACT-BASED answer is the purpose of this article!
Breaking Down Child Support Arrears
The reality of over-due child support is shocking. In my previous article, I estimated the figure is at over one-hundred billion dollars!
Granted, that’s the total over decades, but armed with only that knowledge, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming we can go get that money and win the war on poverty.
The breakdown of the debt, though, crumbles the walls of that belief like a Christmas gingerbread house left out until May.
WARNING! REAL FACTS AND DATA AHEAD. IF YOU DON’T LIKE THESE, DON’T READ!
The US Department of Health and Human Services reports:
- 40% of that hundred-billion-dollar pie belongs to people with NO INCOME! No income, as in zero! It’s a difficult source from which to pull, at best.
- 30% is from individuals who make an annual salary anywhere from $1 (so that’s actually something) to $10K
- 21% is owed by those who rake in an annual sum of $10K to $30K
- And only 9% comes from people making over $30K
Remember that these individuals also need to sustain themselves!
Unfair Interest Rates on Child Support Arrears for Low Earners
I’ll save the debate on minimum wage for another series. But let’s at least consider the current system’s implications.
Some states have a higher minimum wage, but the federal minimum is $7.25 per hour. For a full-time, 40-hour-a-week job, that’s just over $15K per year or $1,257 per month.
Out of that comes food, lodging, health insurance, transportation, clothing, etcetera. There’s not much left after that. Most who live on that salary will tell you zero is what’s left over.
Our child support system is designed so that both parents are tasked with supporting their children. And both should!
For many reasons, our system built up an enforcement network over the past decades to seek out and collect child support arrears. The problem was only compounded by the Bradley Amendment of 1986 that allowed states to add interest to those arrears.
Think about that for a minute.
We have people out there struggling to get by on nothing (or almost nothing) themselves. When they fall behind in child support, we pile on interest to their debt? How do we expect them to dig out of that hole?
The Government has been very willing to attack predatory credit lenders that impose egregious interest rates on the poor. When the housing market crashed, the Government attacked banks to renegotiate the terms of the horrible loans that families struggled under.
This same Government, though, is charging interest to poor working parents who can’t meet their child support obligations. We all know what it’s like to struggle to meet our bills. For these parents, the pain never ends. It’s a constant shell game to keep creditors and bill collectors satisfied just to make it through to the next month, sometimes even the next meal.
Child Support Arrears Collection Forecast
Some parts of the Government recognize how unlikely these debts are to be collected. Ironically, the same organization, the Department of Health and Human Services, reports their estimate about how much of the outstanding child support debt will be collected after 10 years.
- 100% of the debt owed by those who earn >$30K annually will be collected
- 50% of the debt owed by minimum wage earners will be collected
- <25% of the debt owed by those making <$10K annually will be collected
I’m not presenting new math or even a new concept. The phrase “You can’t get blood from a turnip,” has been around for a long time. Yet we continue to bring up these parents as sources of income to solve the overall problem of children living below the poverty line in America. We spend a hefty chunk of change in tax dollars to go after these debtors.
How much does a federal enforcement bureaucracy cost per year?
Federal agencies don’t collect the debt themselves. Instead, they study the data and guide policy. The state enforcement agencies are actually charged with collections. So figure into your estimate another 50 collection and enforcement agencies in addition to the federal agency.
What did you come up with?
Remember how I told you the total child support arrears in America exceeds $100 billion dollars? Turns out, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement works for the same federal agency I keep harping on, the Department of Health and Human Services.
That division’s annual budget is public record and has been pretty steady for the past several years, around $4 billion EVERY YEAR!
Take that number and add in an agency for each state!
Want an example? California’s child support agency’s annual budget: $1 billion. That’s a big state, so assume most are 75% of that number. You end up with an estimate for state fiscal commitments around $37.5 billion. Add in the federal agency and you get $41.5 billion!
Seems to me that if you eliminated these agencies, you could cover the decades’ worth of debt in just under 3 years!
What if you cut the enforcement side of all those agencies completely? Take a portion of those funds and apply them to education programs for parents to help them get better jobs.
The same federal department I’m annoyed with myself for repeating shows that if individuals can earn over $30K per year, they have an almost 100% chance of making their payments.
If the real goal is to end child poverty, let’s attack it from all sides! There are 2 parents and both need to support their child.
One is tagged with paying child support. For those who can’t make their payments, help them get just twice above the minimum wage so they can. At the same time, we can help the parent receiving the child support earn a better wage and get more affordable child care while working so they can work full-time.
The result would be greater income for BOTH parents, which only benefits the children.
Assuming we only had about 15% of that annual budget, or $6.2 billion, do you think we could stand up a good program with the goal of increasing employment and eliminating (or at least decreasing) child poverty? Or is it better to keep spending our tax dollars on federal and state agencies tasked with collecting debts that THE SAME AGENCY ruled un-collectable!?
Let me know in the comments!
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When you get lemons, make lemonade. Ok, so you have a limited amount of time to spend with your child. Make the most of it when you can by bonding with your child.
Your visitation is limited by court order to every other weekend and Tuesday and Thursday. Cool, do all your chores and ‘must dos’ while he’s with his mom and have nothing to distract you when you’re with him. You might be surprised, but, you may have more time now to bond with him than ever before.
The keys words here are ‘quality time’. Bonding with your child is all about uninterrupted exchanges just between the two of you. Above all, always listen and ask his opinion. He has a voice and a lot to say.
Forget about trying to impress him.
Fancy places and expensive amusement parks are fine if you have the money for them. But, simple things like watching a movie or ball game on TV, while he’s sitting on your lap eating popcorn are more than a match.
Some ideas for bonding with your child:
- Teach him a sport and get him into it. Have his favorite snacks around the house. Don’t abuse this, but a little extra won’t hurt. Make this into a fun time that he will look forward to.
- Have a phone installed in his room so you can call him directly whenever you want.
- Take pics when the two of you are together and give them to him.
- When he is old enough, get him his own mobile phone.
- Volunteer to coach any of his sports teams.
- Agree to babysit when ever your ex needs you to.
- Don’t buy expensive gifts to impress, cheaper ones are just as appreciated
- Teach him sports, checkers, chess and judo
- Play ball with him
- Read to him.
- Cook with him.
And, don’t ever complain about your ex or express hostility towards her and especially don’t ever yell at her in person or on the phone.
Lastly and most importantly, love him and show him your love. Studies have shown that in a lot of cases, the child is better of when the parents divorce, than when they stay together and argue all the time, especially when you’re bonding with your child
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The truth is, it won’t necessarily be quick and easy. But if you approach the situation carefully and thoughtfully, respecting everyone’s feelings, there’s every chance that bringing someone new into your family unit can be a positive and happy experience for everyone.
Think About Your Kids Point Of View
Introducing a new partner to your children will trigger a lot of emotions for them, which they won’t always explain to you. They have already dealt with your break-up and more change can be unsettling.
They may secretly be hoping that you and your ex will get back together one day. Seeing you start a new relationship will make them realize that’s unlikely. They might worry that you will love them less or that there won’t be room for them in your life any more.
Younger children, under 10 years old, may feel sad and confused. Children of any age can feel jealous, anxious, angry or threatened. They might perceive your new girlfriend as a rival for your attention and loyalty to their mother can make it difficult for them to immediately accept someone else into your lives.
Don’t punish them for bad behavior or acting out without fully understanding what’s behind it. Talk things through as much and as fully as you can and reassure them constantly. For some great communication tips, check out this piece of advice.
Take It Slowly When Introducing Your New Partner To Your Kids
One of the most important points when introducing a new partner to your children is to take things slowly. First of all, wait until you are certain that the relationship is a serious one. Don’t make the mistake of introducing your children to casual girlfriends; it will be unsettling for them to keep meeting new potential partners.
Keep your relationship to yourself for a while and see how things develop. Make sure that your new partner wants to become involved with your family. And ask yourself if you’re sure that she is likely to be a good fit for you all. You need to be unselfish here; don’t press ahead when you know, deep down, that a particular girlfriend isn’t going to be right for your children. If you’re not sure, introduce her to a couple of friends first and seek their honest opinion.
Talk It Over
Ideally the first person you should talk things over with will be your ex. Explain that you’ve met someone new and that you’d like the children to meet her at some point in the future. You don’t want your children to feel they have to keep something secret from their mother, particularly if it’s something they are likely to feel anxious about.
Try and discuss it calmly and listen to any fears your ex may have. Reassure her that you will take things slowly with the children and keep her updated on how they are dealing with it. Hopefully in return she will be able to give you honest feedback about how she feels they are coping.
As far as your children are concerned, introduce the idea gradually. Explain to them that you have a new girlfriend. Mention her from time to time and answer any questions they have. Then ask them if they’d like to meet her one day. If they’re resistant, leave it for a while, but continue to talk about her occasionally. Then ask them if they would come out with you and her. Let them choose the activity if possible, and do something fun, such as bowling, going on a picnic or to play at the park.
Keep The First Meeting Low-Key
Set a time limit for the first meeting. An hour or two is enough, even if everyone is having fun. In fact, leaving while things are going well makes it more likely that your children will want to go out with her again.
If she has children too, leave meeting them for another day. It’s fine for her to mention them, but introducing too many people all at once can feel quite chaotic and there’s a risk someone will feel overwhelmed or left out.
Make sure you do something casual and fun. A formal dinner where everyone has to sit still and behave well can be awkward and not particularly enjoyable. It’s better to let everyone get to know each other over a fun trip or while playing games at the park. Make sure things don’t get too competitive though, and look for signals that your children have had enough. Say goodbye to your new partner at the venue, avoiding physical contact at this stage, and go home with your children. This will allow them to relax and chat about her and what they thought on your journey home together.
Subsequent meetings should follow a similar pattern, building up to longer periods of time, but making sure you don’t overdo it. It’s important at this stage that your children look forward to the trips. Even if they’re not overly keen on being with your new partner, if they’re going to do something fun then hopefully they will still look forward to it.
For a few simple suggestions, check out this article on encouraging family bonding.
Listen To Your Children’s Concerns
Let your children talk freely about the new person in their lives and allow them to express exactly what they think, even if it’s not what you want to hear. If you tell them they’re wrong or tell them off, there’s a risk they’ll stop confiding in you.
Don’t ask them if they like her; it’s better to ask if they had fun and what they’d like to do next time. Ask them if they feel comfortable and safe with her but otherwise don’t fish for compliments.
Take on board what they’re saying and see if there’s anything you or your new girlfriend can do to help them adjust. Make sure they know that you’re considering their feelings and that they have input into the situation.
Remember, they may actively dislike her to start with. Trust and affection are built over time and they may have many concerns which aren’t immediately apparent to you. Don’t panic. As things progress they are likely to come to appreciate and accept her if you proceed kindly and thoughtfully.
Make sure you still spend as much quality time with your children as you did before. You don’t need to go out; time spent at home with them is fine, so long as you are focused on them and communicating with them. They need to know that your love for them hasn’t changed.
Bringing Your New Girlfriend Into Your Family Home
You’ve introduced your new girlfriend to your kids, now you’d like her to come to your home. Again, start slowly with this. A meal is an ideal first introduction with a brief play session before or after, depending on the age of the children. But keep it fairly short and once your girlfriend has left spend some quality time with your children so that they can chat over anything they want.
As things progress, visits can get longer, but stay sensitive to your children’s feelings and make sure they don’t feel invaded or pushed out. Even when your girlfriend is there, there should still be time for you and them to be together.
When you think your children are ready for your girlfriend to stay the night, talk things through with them first. Set ground rules with both them and her, such as locked doors, wearing appropriate clothing, privacy and time in the bathroom. Try hard not to embarrass anyone and keep displays of affection in front of your children to a minimum.
Hopefully your children will accept your new partner into your lives and come to enjoy her company. As things become more routine, make sure you discuss what is expected of everyone. For example, discipline when you’re not around and how much of a parenting role she will be taking on. It’s easier to set rules at the beginning before habits are established.
It can be a big ask for your children to allow someone new into their lives and at times it will be hard work for all concerned. Everyone will learn a little more about themselves during the process. With kindness, thoughtfulness and generosity, even difficult situations can resolve themselves and a family unit expanded to include one more.
Ultimately, for everyone to have someone else to love and be loved by is a wonderful thing. It really is worth the effort to add a new person to your family and learning to accept and like someone new will be a great attribute for your kids to have.
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The mother of my daughter hates my guts. She doesn’t just dislike me; she loathes me with a passion
And yet, we have no choice but to learn to co-parent together. To be perfectly honest, she’s not really my favorite person in the world, either. However, strange as it might seem, it is more common than we might want to think in this world that you can share your greatest love with your worst enemy.
While she and I are barely civil to one another, we have never allowed this to influence how we set ground rules for our daughter.
This fact alone has allowed us to navigate the last fifteen years of our daughter’s life with a mutual understanding and respect, while maintaining a safe distance from one another.
I am proud to say that my daughter is a sweet, charming, thoughtful and delightful young lady who graduates high school with honors next month, and her mother’s and my early decision (we separated when our daughter was less than two) to keep our personal feelings for one another out of the parenting equation apparently had good results. We didn’t have to like each other to keep teaching our child to make good decisions. In a way, we are very fortunate that we were both raised with the same general principles, social mores and taboos, though we often have very differing opinions about them. And while there are certainly grey areas and some difficult negotiations along the way, we are both coming from basically the same place; we want our child to be happy, and we want to support her growth in learning to think for herself and make choices that will serve her best throughout life.
While we worked hard at putting aside our feelings and personal biases in discussing what is best for our kid, we’re polar opposites in the way we manage our personal lives, and we both take responsibility for exposing our daughter to both the good and the bad of our own personal choices, so that she might make up her own mind.
For instance, my daughter has been raised religiously non-denominational for the most part. This is not because her mother and I don’t both have our individual beliefs; but that they are not the same beliefs, and rather than force one upon our child, we decided to just let her make her own choices and make ours available to her. Her mother is a non-practicing Catholic who still celebrates Christmas and Easter; I am a reasonably practicing Jew. (Which is to say, I observe high holidays and try to at least acknowledge Shabbat.)
The fact of our different heritage has another interesting aspect for raising our daughter. Since Catholicism is passed down patrilineally, and Judaism is passed down through matrilineally, our daughter does not belong inherently to either religion. This oddity in our religious backgrounds actually forced her mother and I to take this issue very seriously and were probably some of the longest discussions we ever had concerning her upbringing. (The other big issue for us became medication, as our daughter was diagnosed with ADHD early in her life, and it has been an area where we disagreed on appropriate treatment, which in turn forced us to have very passionate dialogues about what was important to us.)
While this could have become a really difficult part of parenting, instead it became perhaps the most important aspect for us in learning how to parent together while separate. Because this particular aspect of raising our daughter was a bridge that could not be crossed, what we had to learn early on was how to share our differences to our daughter without making the other party out to be “wrong”.
Now, in some ways, I have to admit that this particular aspect of my parenting might leave others angry or questioning. Even from members of my own faith I have experienced a small and subtle backlash in choosing not to push my personal beliefs upon my child. Still, I am fortunate that her mother shares similar views. So we choose to focus instead on things that we both agree are important. Instead of teaching about Jesus or God (or Buddha, Mohammed, etc.) we talked about sustainability, responsibility, compassion, conservation, philanthropy and other core values we mutually consider important. These are principles that are demonstrable and have proven results. We are also pretty solidly agreed on our lessons concerning work, school, play, friends, and a host of other subjects, so in the grand scheme of “what our kid needs to know”, religion really is pretty low on the totem. We feel that we can talk about religion when she brings it up.
I believe the only truly morally responsible act to take as separate parents is for both to strive to keep the welfare of the child or children the most significant part of any communication, and to strive to create harmonious outcomes (or at least ones that are fair compromises) concerning consequences and rules.
Whenever possible, you should agree on basic principles and expectations and be consistent in both homes:
- If a behavior is not allowed at one house, for example, it shouldn’t be tolerated at the other
- If a punishment is meted out by one parent, it should be upheld by the other
- Curfews should be consistent, as well as what “grounding” means in your home.
- Don’t try and out-do one another on things like allowance and tooth fairy visits – take turns or divvy them up, but always keep them equal
- Compromise on things like healthy eating and the amount of sugar intake, have zero sugar at one house and a veritable treasure trove of gummy bears at the other won’t help anyone
While your child might seem innocent and you are confident they have been brought up well, the urge to play one parent off the other, especially when the parents hate each other and can barely communicate with one another, is just to delicious and irresistible to a child who wants something really, really bad. It becomes easy, and before you know it, they will master the art of lying and manipulating to get their own way. Don’t ever underestimate how smart they are, and don’t make the mistake of thinking they aren’t listening and seeing what is going on when you least expect it.
Don’t Forget Another Very Important Factor
Make sure your new partners respect your wishes with your ex, and are on board with your plans in being consistent. It isn’t a competition. If you aren’t in agreement with your ex, and your new partner supports you in that decision, you can escalate very quickly to a situation that is not manageable without being in a constant state of anger and frustration, or heading back down the very expensive road of court costs.
You don’t have to like your ex, but you have to work together where the kids are concerned. After all, you made them together, right? Well, now you have the responsibility of raising your kids together…and that means getting on the same page when it comes to parenting, even if in no other aspect of your relationship. You owe it to your kids.
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For those new to blended families, you may find the title confusing. If you are one about to set up a blended family, you may not understand what I mean by blended family chaos when you are planning your future. After all, the kids have been hanging out and playing nicely up until this point. Your story will be different. I’m here to tell you, if you are looking for a key piece of divorce advice for men, read this whole thing! Odds are you will one day attempt this very thing.
Anyone out there living the “joy” of a blended family today? Do you find it as shown on television? The world is never as portrayed on television. The best divorce advice for men regarding blended family chaos does NOT come from the Brady Bunch! Here a man with three boys marries the woman with three girls and they all get along wonderfully, and resolve minor conflicts in less than 30 minutes. The real world laughs at this absurdity!
Several years ago, I attended a wedding that set the stage for blended family chaos. The bride’s parents had divorced when “Holly” was in elementary school. Her mother remarried shortly thereafter, and the stepfather, “Tim,” was instrumental in Holly’s life. So important that, when it was time to plan the wedding, there was no question that Tim would walk her down the aisle.
But at the wedding reception when the emcee announced the father-daughter dance, both Holly’s biological father and her stepfather walked onto the dance floor. A shouting match ensued, and it was uncomfortable for everyone. Especially the bride.
How awful do you think this made the daughter and bride feel? It’s easy for us to analyze this from the comfort of our seats and recognize the behavior was pathetic. But when you are the one in the heat of the moment, emotions are flared up, you see your ex happy with another and old feelings kick in, and you potentially have some alcohol giving you a boost, your personal decisions may not be the best. Weddings are hard enough anyway. Non-blended families have their own stresses at the wedding as discussed here. Throw in the old wounds of divorce and you have to be ready to not ruin the event for your kids.
Not All Step-parents are Evil
What did we learn from this awkward scenario? Well, the obvious lesson — anticipate these moments when planning the wedding and reception, and communicate the decisions ahead of time. But what about the subtle lesson? Not all stepparents are evil. Some even have the ability to love beyond their own progeny. Step-relationships do not have to result in blended family chaos.
Let’s take a look at a couple of scenarios you might be able to visualize.
Scenario #1: Your ex remarries, and her new husband has kids of his own. The newlyweds are able to sync their custody/visitation dates together so that they either have all their respective kids, or none. When your kids spend time with you, all they do is complain about their evil stepfather and his obnoxious children. What words of wisdom do you pass along to your own kids about their new blended family?
Scenario #2: You remarry, and your new wife has kids of her own. She has primary custody of her children, and their father is pretty much out of the picture. So now you’re a stepdad, essentially raising and supporting somebody else’s kids. How do you navigate this newly blended family without affecting your relationship with your wife?
Could you be reading about anyone you know?
Exploring the New Family Dynamic
Bringing up the role of a future stepparent isn’t generally discussed during divorce mediation. But subsequent marriages and blended families may eventually happen. This could be the perfect storm, or it could be a perfect opportunity to revisit your divorce mediator, only this time to talk about issues within the new dynamic. Sometimes, it’s even a good idea to bring along the entire blended family.
In my mediation practice, I have achieved success in helping families avoid Blended Family Chaos.
Imagine you, your new spouse, and your respective children all sitting in a conference room. The kids are spinning around in their chairs, your wife is clutching her Starbucks cup with both hands, and you are nervously tapping the end of your pencil against the table top. I walk in with a smile on my face, and immediately address the kids; writing down their names and ages.
This seemingly simple tactic of writing down the name of each kid and his/her age is my way of showing that the kids are as important in this process as the adults. Next, I’ll explain the ground rules – that I’m here to listen and to make sure each person has an equal opportunity to talk, uninterrupted, with the goal of achieving some understanding.
I’m not saying this produces instant results. Kids need to feel comfortable with their counselor to even begin to open up. Kids with other mental health challenges present unique challenges. However, all kids need time to get comfortable before the real therapy begins. For you parents this means be patient. Your kids aren’t going to respond right away, that’s the one guarantee.
Not too long ago, in my very own conference room, I empowered a 10-year-old girl to express her concern about sharing a bedroom with her eight-year-old stepsister. Everybody listened to understand her fears and concerns, and then both sisters created a code of conduct about their stuff. The entire family talked about acceptable behavior and also about consequences. I took notes, and then prepared a written agreement between the two girls. They solemnly signed it as though they were entering into a contract to rent an apartment. The impact was unmistakable. And the parents took it very seriously.
Of course, there are different issues when it comes to teenagers. If the stepparent’s teens are allowed unlimited use of cell phones, computers, and automobiles, but the biological parent’s teens are not, whose rules govern? This is another opportunity for a neutral third party to help the entire family brainstorm about what is reasonable, fair, and enforceable. Once decided, the Mediator may draw up a written agreement for the entire family to sign, outlining the new rules. Naturally, after the agreement is has been signed, it’s binding, and you and your spouse must also agree to the terms, including enforcement of the consequences.
When Kids Hate the New Partner
So what happens if your new partner’s kids take an instant dislike to YOU? (Or vice-versa?)
I recently had the opportunity to work with a blended family where the stepmother’s dislike of her new husband’s 14-year-old daughter wreaked havoc on their marriage, and she was ready to file for divorce. The teenager had been in therapy, but it obviously was having no material effect on the family dynamic. The husband chose not to play the adult card with his belligerent daughter, and opted instead to seek out the help of a family mediator. Within the first 20 minutes, it was obvious that the daughter was able to open up more to me than she had in several therapy sessions. Why? Because I’m a mediator, not a therapist. Mediators are trained to listen and ask questions without judgment. In this case, the daughter desperately wanted her biological parents to reconcile. We all heard her say the words, and then I gently asked her what would happen if the reconciliation was impossible. She literally took a deep breath, sat up straighter, and began to talk about her future.
Helping people in conflict move forward is what Mediators are trained to do.
Families, especially those with teenagers, seem to find something less threatening about choosing mediation over family therapy. And let’s not forget that it’s likely way less expensive.
Blended family mediations have tremendous success because all of the family members have an equal voice. It’s no surprise that many second (or subsequent) marriages fail because of the chaos caused by conflict about the kids and stepchildren.
Critical Steps for Avoiding Mixed Family Chaos
To avoid blended-family chaos, I urge you to consider these nine steps:
- Don’t show favoritism.Whether you’re obviously favoring your own children over your stepkids, or you’re over-compensating by favoring your stepchildren over your own, the kids will call you on it. And they’ll be right to point it out to you.
- Don’t be played. Your kids know just how to get to you, whether it’s by dishing out some guilt, or by acting out, or by other devious methods to “punish” you for divorcing their mom and marrying their Wicked Stepmother. Recognize it and avoid it like the plague.
- Be consistent. When you and your spouse establish new ground rules, whether with the help of a family mediator or not, make sure those rules are enforced equally and without exception. Your entire family will benefit if you and your spouse put up a united front.
- Stand by what’s important. You and your new spouse will not always agree. Often the stronger personality will win on many rules and standards for the blended home. As dads, we sometimes seek the compromise and by doing so, can force our kids into a setting that is drastically different for them. Know your key stances on home environment and don’t give in when setting the baseline with the new spouse just to get it moving.
- Compliment each kid. Find something to praise each child about frequently. I’m absolutely not suggesting that you hand out participation trophies simply for being a member of the family. Rather, I’m encouraging you to find something noteworthy and express it to each child, preferably in front of everybody. Dinner table compliments are an easy habit to establish and you’ll not only be boosting their self-esteem, but also your own ratings.
- Meet your new kids. Yes, don’s show favoritism. But you also need to get to know your step kids. This doesn’t take much, however you need to be aware of your human nature to go to your comfort zone. You know your kids. So you will naturally chat with them. Get to know the new ones…make an effort. You will likely have to remind yourself.
- Nurture your marriage. I saved this one for last because in my opinion, it’s the most important. Have regular date nights with your spouse. Remind yourselves (and each other) why you’re together in the first place, and why you’ve committed yourselves to raising this blended family in the best way possible.
- Flexible holidays. When you blend a family, you increase the number of families that have to work together. Your new step-kids have another parent, and your kids have another. At holiday time, the different groups of kids will be heading in different directions. Just remember to stay flexible. Your kids are the ones really feeling the stress of going between households. Do your best to make their time at your home low-stress.
- Go almost all-in. You’ve got to be ready to push all the chips in from the start and fully commit to the new family for any hope of making it work. However, just like Vegas, keep a chip or two in your pocket for cab money, or Uber for the younger crowd. Never forget who the #1 advocate for your children is (hint: it’s you)! If you’ve gone the full road and applied your soul to making it work, but your partner has not or it is just tearing your kids apart, you may need to use that saved chip to pack it up. Sad fact, but they come first. Don’t let them know this, or they’ll do everything to get you to depart. But you’ll know when.
Don’t Give Up On Your Blended Family
Okay, now what? You say you’ve made the effort to avoid Blended Family Chaos by following the nine steps above, but your relationship with your stepchildren is still causing stress in the family, and in your marriage? Or, what if your blended family needs a tune-up because the kids are older and the issues have changed accordingly?
Find a family mediator in your community and schedule an appointment. Be proactive and you won’t have to deal with Blended Family Chaos.
Nancy Gabriel is the principal and managing partner of Mediation Around The Table, LLC., a Las Vegas-based private mediation company. Ms. Gabriel is a founding director of Nevada Mediation Group, a non-profit corporation focusing on the education and training of mediators, a volunteer for the Neighborhood Justice Center of Clark County, Nevada, a member of the divorce panel for MWI, a Boston, Massachusetts firm specializing in alternative dispute resolutions, and a volunteer at Three Square Food Bank. She is a graduate of UCLA, an avid gourmet cook and NFL fan. She may be contacted through the firm website at www.MediationAroundTheTable.com
Image courtesy of stockunlimited.com
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