Two Home Children
by Harald Breiding-Buss
Not living with your children all the time adds a huge challenge to parenting. It is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain one set of ‘family’ rules at both places, and never mind trying to deal with something like the role of a new partner.
Differences in parenting very often become reasons for one parent to shut out the other one, who then sometimes has to go to Court to try and maintain his or her relationship in the face of a barrage of criticism.
There is not a lot of information on what is ‘best practice’ in parenting children after separation. This is a result of a lack of research on how different ways of parenting separately impact on the children. We know that those two-home children do best if the parents communicate well, but we do not know if that means they are parenting more consistently or simply agree to disagree, or if maybe they simply talk more about parenting than even the average married couple would do. If authors try to tell you that their way is the best way of separation parenting, this is based on their personal opinions and philosophies, not on research. This column is no different!
For small children, up to about two and a half years, we can make some reasonably certain assumptions about what would be best simply because we know a lot about early childhood development. Here’s some of the common issues we come across at Father & Child:
Consistency between parents: For older children, trying to achieve consistency between the two home environments is probably over-rated. Children experience a lot of different environments (including school, kindergarten, friends’ places etc) with different rules, and by the time they are about four they have figured that one out. They will ask questions, and perhaps even challenge why things are one way at Mum’s and another at Dad’s, but this is something you simply have to deal with.
For little children, however, consistency in routines and rules is very important wherever they are, because they draw so much sense of security from that stability. Although it is now quite common, it is less than ideal for a small child to alternate between two homes with different people in it, especially if it is for several days at a time. For children up to about two years of age, attachment to their caregivers is everything, and one caregiver cannot ‘replace’ the other even temporarily. To mitigate this as much as possible, it is best to try to have the same routines around the day’s schedule, meals, bedtime, going out etc. in both homes. It will also help if Mum and Dad still visit the same people and shop at the same places, although these are big asks.
Unsettled when coming back from the other parent: This is an extremely common complaint we hear all the time at Father & Child. Generally one parent reports that a young child is ‘playing up’ after coming back from the other, while the other maintains that the child is settled and happy while there and any problem must be in the first parent’s home.
Again, the key to this issue is attachment. As much as we all like to have our children well settled, ‘playing up’ and ‘rebellion’ are, within limits, signs of good attachment. It is a sign that the child feels secure enough that he doesn’t feel he has to please you all the time. This is the reason why even children whose behaviour give their parents a lot of headaches at home are like little angels when with others and/or away from home. Even adults put on their best behaviour in situations they are unfamiliar with or feel anxious about, and get into arguments only with people they care about most.
So if a young child is very settled at one parent’s place only to ‘play up’ once back at the other’s the most likely reason is that the child doesn’t quite feel secure and at home at the place where he is settled.
For a small child to feel secure, the environment is not very important but the people are. Attachment is created by a parent’s responsiveness to a child’s cues. This means 100% attentiveness even when there are other people or things demanding your attention. It doesn’t mean the child has to get everything they want, but they have to get a response every time they want something. They have to get your attention according to their timetable, not yours. You can’t ‘make up’ for it later.
This implies time. Little children need quantity time. They obviously also need playtime and good stimulation for learning, but attachment is created mainly by being available.
Another important factor is physical closeness. Frequent touch, snuggles, games that involve the body (tickling etc) are a must.
Playing off parents: As children grow they get more and more sophisticated in trying to get what they want by being selective with their information. If this is bad behaviour, then our free market economy is based on it. Of course you want to make sure it doesn’t work by keeping good communication with the other parent, but don’t blame the child for trying.
It can be upsetting to get the feeling that the child thinks they’re better off at the other parent’s place, and what starts off as jealousy often turns into righteousness. This is your issue. For the children this sort of thing is simply not a big deal. It will become one, however, if their parents start fighting over what’s right and wrong in parenting.