In my 8 years as a co-parent, I’ve found that caring for children between two households requires my ex-husband and me to mind lots of details. A shared parenting agreement helps manage the logistics, including who pays for what and where the children will live at different times, including holidays. But what such agreements typically do not cover are the more nuanced issues that can pose a dilemma for some co-parents.
For example, while the parenting agreement may detail, down to the hour, where your child will spend the winter holidays, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and both parents’ birthdays, it probably doesn’t advise how to observe such gift-giving occasions when the gift-recipient is someone that you used to love, someone with whom you no longer have an intimate relationship, someone who may have hurt or betrayed you. There are no Hallmark cards for such an occasion.
Youth Bill of Rights
The good news is that gift-giving occasions – like so many occasions in a co-parenting family – aren’t primarily about us as co-parents, our feelings, or our experiences with each other. These occasions are about our children and their ongoing need and right to love and have an unhindered relationship with both parents freely. In fact, the New Jersey Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts has created a “Bill of Rights for Children in Divorce and Dissolution Actions,” which includes the following rights that apply to daily life in general, and gift-giving occasions in particular:
Children have the right to express love and affection for, and receive love and affection from, both parents.
Children have the right to know and appreciate what is good in each parent.
(You can read the full list of rights here.)
Embrace Your Co-parent
While some co-parents may be hard-pressed to articulate something good about the other parent, their children have a right to express such feelings of love, affection, and appreciation for both parents. So while gift-giving occasions may be personally challenging for you, these times are also opportunities to reflect on the positives about your co-parent and to embrace some important truths about co-parenting:
- It may be easier to acknowledge the good in the other parent when you consider him or her as a parent rather than as a former partner. Someone can be a less-than-ideal mate but a wonderful parent. Gift-giving occasions are times for children to acknowledge the good in their parents. By choosing or helping your child to choose a gift for the other parent from the child, you are acknowledging your child’s perspective and honoring his relationship with the other parent. You see your ex through your child’s eyes.
- Through positive interactions, your child will form her own impressions and naturally come to know and appreciate what’s good about the other parent, without you ever saying a word. Doing your part to keep things civil with your ex will help facilitate this knowledge and appreciation. Refraining from bad-mouthing the other parent to or around your child also facilitates this. Making it possible for your child to give a gift to the other parent is yet another way to encourage and support this parent-child relationship.
- Children want (sometimes desperately) to see the good in both their parents. It makes them feel good about their parents, their family life, and, most importantly, about themselves as they reflect their parents. So when you not only allow but encourage your child to see the good in the other parent by giving a gift, you’re also enriching his sense of self.
A gift doesn’t have to cost money to convey what’s in a child’s heart. If it’s age-appropriate, you can start by asking your child to think of positive traits about the other parent that could be included in a card or other artwork for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, another special occasion, or just because. For younger children, you can ask them to depict something they enjoy doing with the other parent or to draw a picture of themselves with the other parent. Let your child know that it’s okay for her to acknowledge and appreciate these good attributes and good times. Point out the qualities that she and the other parent have in common, like a love of reading, a smart sense of humor, or skillfulness in the arts or athletics.
When you put your feelings about your ex aside in order to help your child create or buy a gift for her other parent, two gifts are given: one from your child to your ex and the other from you to your child.
Deesha Philyaw is the co-founder of co-parenting101.org and co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive In Two Households After Divorce, both in collaboration with her ex-husband. She is a Pittsburgh-based mom and stepmom to four daughters.
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