For the noncustodial parent who lives far from his or her children, summer vacation often is greeted with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. This may be the only extended time that parent and child are together. A few days at the winter holidays (with all the winter holiday distractions) or spring break (which lasts a maximum of a week) doesn’t adequately prepare folks for an extended stay of a few weeks or more.
Thank goodness for Skype, Facebook and email. Social media has made it possible for parents and kids to be more regularly in touch. Noncustodial parents are now using these means to stay more actively in their children’s lives than they’ve ever been. Nonetheless, living together 24/7 is a different situation than even a nightly Skype call. You’re now on duty for everything.
What can the parent do to make it a time to remember as mostly positive?
- Get ready. Visiting kids don’t have their familiar toys or creative supplies to keep themselves busy. Stock up on some age-appropriate books, art supplies, some kind of construction set like Legos or K’NEX and maybe a few outdoor toys like Frisbees, balls, and sidewalk chalk. Having choices available will let you be unimpressed with any complaints of boredom. Remind them that they are smart, creative kids. Let them know you have confidence in their ability to amuse themselves for a few hours now and then. (This doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Visit a few garage sales, your local Goodwill or Salvation Army store or ask friends for stuff their kids have outgrown.)
- Include the kids in advance planning. And be flexible. Your idea of fun may be long days at the beach. Your kids may think being off from school means more time for video games. By all means, introduce them to new things and get them outdoors. But make room for what is familiar and fun for them. Talking about it ahead of time will help you all get on the same page and will prevent disappointments.
- Allow for settling in. Some conflict is inevitable. When people don’t normally live together, just adjusting to each other’s schedules, habits, and routines takes some doing. So allow for a settling-in time. Don’t expect kids to immediately understand your regular routines. Even if they visited you last year, they are a year older and so are you. Things may well have changed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. If possible, talk about any changes that have occurred in your life and in the kids’ expectations before the summer begins.
- Easy does it. Don’t try to be what one writer called “Disneyland Dad (or Mom)” with one fun-filled day after another. It will exhaust all of you. A half hour of really, really listening to a kid means more than a trip to the latest movie. Making dinner together or reading bedtime stories will provide more connection than a constant flurry of special events.
- Do regular life. Families have regular old boring days picking up after themselves, going to the grocery store and doing laundry. It’s important that your kids see your life as real life, not as an amusement park. Vary special plans with ordinary old dailiness. It’s often in drives to the hardware store or when doing dishes together that the most meaningful conversations take place.
- Be realistic. Don’t expect the weeks of summer to offset months of absence. You can’t make major changes in your kids’ manners, schedules or interests. You can certainly nudge things along in a different direction through encouragement and approval, but don’t expect to have major impact. That is more likely to happen if you are involved in a more daily way (which brings us back to the uses of social media).
- Be sure to do some advance planning together if you have a new partner. What do you each expect of the other during the kids’ stay? Will your partner have time alone with the kids? Is so, how do you expect him or her to handle it if the kids misbehave in your absence? Talk about how your relationship might have to change while the kids are there. Make sure you both have realistic and mutual expectations to prevent misunderstandings and resentment.
- Focus on the positive. This is your time to reconnect and to reestablish physical presence and affection. Kids, being kids, will test your limits and your patience. Be firm about reasonable rules, of course. But also make sure they see your caring and support. Catch them being “right” as much as you can. Notice the positive changes since last year. For every critical comment you make, discipline yourself to make at least three positive ones. It will make you both feel better and will set a positive direction for your relationship until you can be together again.