Nearly every parenting agreement has a provision for “reasonable” communication with a child. After all, before the divorce, you were able to talk to your child every day in your home. It certainly seems reasonable to be able to hear about a good test grade or field goal, or say good night when your child is with the other parent.
So your parenting agreement may contain a more generic clause about daily telephone, text, or Facetime contact, or have a more specific directive that a parent can call between the hours of 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. It all falls under that modifying word, as to what is “reasonable.”
So what is reasonable telephone contact?
Daily communication with a child alternating between two homes helps in healthy emotional development. In her practice with young adults, Becky Freeman-Murray, MA, LCPC, Clinical Director of Inspire Counseling Center of Northbrook, Illinois, encourages:
Parents must always remember their children share 50% of each parent’s DNA, and any attempt to put constraints or expectations on a child’s time with the other parent can be very detrimental. Children and young adults often feel worried about the other parent when they are with one parent. Telephone contact is for the kids, not the parents. There should be absolutely no attempt to manipulate, prod or control a child’s phone interaction with the other parent.
Parents who are able to emotionally “move on” from the divorce recognize this, and telephone contact by a child to the other parent is for the child to feel good about herself. The parent calling the child is not trying to disrupt the other’s parenting time, but is just that brief verbal contact to assure connection, and to keep up with the day.
Where does telephone contact go wrong?
“Reasonable” takes a turn when the parent manipulates the child into feeling guilty for enjoying time with the other parent. If every time the child is with Dad, Mom says over the phone, “I’m so sad and lonely without you. . .oh, the dog misses you, and your room is so empty,” she is sabotaging her child’s ability to enjoy her time with Dad. This is not telling the child just how much she is loved at your house; this is telling the child that she should be worried about you and her dog being distraught when she is away from home.
Similar to that is putting the other parent on speaker phone. Children under the age of 5 have neither the patience nor the social skills to have a phone conversation, and parents have to use the speaker or video for that brief contact. But when a child is over that age, and Dad insists that all phone conversations have to be on speaker, or the child has to take the call in the same room as Dad, the child intuits that there is something, in some way, “wrong” with her conversations with Mom. Parents should always encourage their child to call, or accept a phone call, and allow privacy and reasonable time to talk.
Making it about you
Texting is yet another category. As a parent of a young child with a phone, it is absolutely necessary to monitor phone usage for inappropriate websites, apps and text messages. On the other hand, this is just like putting the other parent on speaker phone – are you also voyeuristically monitoring what your child is saying with the other parent by text? Even if the text is about you, it is not “all about you” – a child is entitled to be temporarily angry or frustrated with a parent, because you probably already are with the child. This goes back to what is “reasonable,” in terms of what is said, and how a parent either supports the child, or tries to alienate the other parent. It may have to be brought to a counselor’s attention as to what is happening in the dynamic of incessant texting from a parent, or manipulation by a parent through this channel of communication.
What is the right thing to do?
I was in court the other day on an emergency in which the other parent was yet again demanding additional days for a vacation which was deliberately scheduled during my client’s parenting time. I asked my client if I should, in turn, demand a certain time daily for telephone contact while the children were away. This client sadly, but wisely, said no – the reason being was that even though this vacation usurped the regularly scheduled parenting time, this client wanted the children to enjoy every day of the vacation. The children already knew the parents were in court; my client didn’t want the additional stress on the children to have to be reminded of a daily 6:00 p.m. phone call for compliance with a court order.
Keep in mind that telephone contact is about the child, and not about the parent. “Reasonable” is the key.