Q: My wife and I have been divorced for about six months. My son goes back and forth between our homes. Recently he has begun telling me he wants to live with me. It's been going on for about three months now. Right before my son leaves, he asks if he can stay. He seems so unhappy. I'm thinking about taking my ex back to court to ensure he lives with me full-time. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: I don't question for one second that he's telling you this — and if he's like most of the children I have worked with after their parents split, he's probably saying the same thing to mom. He's not lying and he's not trying to cause problems. He's being honest with both of you. You are both his parents. He wants to live with both of you.
If he is unsafe with one of you, that's a reason to consider a change, but if this is arrogance — "He'd just be better off with me" — consider that he has been uprooted from everything he's even known. How will spending less time with either parent be best for him?
The first rule of good ex-etiquette is: "Put your child first." The second is, check your ego at the door and "ask for help if you need it." (You can find more about the rules bonusfamlies.com.) Before you choose to go back to court, the first thing to do is talk to his mother. Has she heard the same thing? Will a change in schedule help or is your son responding normally to his parents' recent breakup? What can the two of you do to make the transition easier on him? Unless there is a problem at mom's — say she has a drug or alcohol issue — fighting over time with him will not help him feel more secure.
Your child has a right to live with both of his parents. Make it work for him.
When there is a lack of communication between the parents, a change in schedule rarely makes things better for the child. The issue is how the parents communicate and changing the schedule will not improve that. That's up to you. Improve how often you compare notes, how often you work together to solve any problems, and your son will automatically respond. If a change in schedule is necessary, that will eventually become obvious, and you and his mother will hopefully make those changes in his best interest.
When people break up, it's natural instinct to retreat to separate corners and not interact, but when we have children together we just can't do that. To point you in the right direction, you both might consider a co-parenting class or help from a therapist.
I don't question your ability to parent, but it sounds as if you may need tools to properly co-parent now that you are apart.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation, and the founder of bonusfamilies.com. Reach her at drjannblackstonegmail.com.