Q: My husband's kids are teenagers, and sometimes it's difficult to get them to come see us. My husband tries to be understanding, but the truth is, he's heartbroken each time they cancel. Sometimes he has something planned and they call the night before. Father's Day is around the corner and I want to make sure they will be here. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: Sounds like your husband has fallen into the trap many non-custodial parents fall into — they don't want to force their teenager to do anything, so they act understanding when their kids cancel. Many have told me, "I remember how it was when I was a kid. I didn't want to go see my dad/mom, either." That doesn't make it right. Kids have a right to have a relationship with both parents and it's both parents' responsibility to reinforce that relationship.
If a child doesn't want to see the other parent, first you must assess if the child is in danger. If he's not safe, then it's understandable why he would not want to go and that has to be explored. If it's just that he would rather play with his pals, that's when it's the custodial parent's responsibility to put their own anger and resentment aside (Ex-Etiquette rule No. 5: Don't be spiteful. Ex-etiquette rule No. 6: Don't hold grudges) and reinforce the child's time with the other parent. (It's the child's time, not the parent's time.)
Parents often ask me, "Are you saying I should make my child go?" To that I usually ask the following questions:
What do you say to your child when they say they want to go to school or do their homework? Parents usually tell me, "I make them do it."
What do you say to your child when they say they want to clean their room? Parents usually say, "I make them do it."
What do you say to your child when they tell you they say they don't want to go to church or synagogue, or eat their dinner? Parents say, "I make them do it."
Hopefully, I've made my point.
The answer that would support the child's time with dad is, "Honey, this is your time with your father. He looks forward to seeing you." And don't end it with, "I'll give you a cookie if you go." Or, "I know, honey, you'll be home soon." That's a quick way to undermine. It's in the best interest of your child to have a relationship with both mom and dad.
In terms of what dad should say to the kids if they tell him they don't want to come see him — remember, barring any safety issues: "I look forward to seeing you this weekend. It's Father's Day and we have something really great planned!" Not: "Okay, if that's what you want to do." To a teenager that translates to: "He doesn't care anyway." Stay away from guilt trips — "But I miss you so much" — they backfire. Keep it positive.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation, and the founder of bonusfamilies.com. Email her at drjannblackstonegmail.com.