Unaccompanied Parents

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The Article

A few years ago, while flying to Vancouver from Toronto, I had a case of déjà vu. Seated in the row in front of us were three children with “U.M.” written on red badges around their necks. I had donned that badge many a time myself, as an “Unaccompanied Minor” trekking across the country to visit my father.

Two children were siblings engaging in their annual jaunt to see Mom. Their step-father had custody, and they were given strict instructions to call him if Mom started drinking in their presence. Then there was the little 8-year-old girl who hadn’t seen her father in two years and couldn’t stop fidgeting.

Summer is the time when many children just like these ones take off for weeks at a time to visit the “other parent”, presenting some interesting challenges to the parent who has primary custody. What do you do when your former spouse has a completely different parenting style? What if you have strict rules about TV, only to discover later that your 7-year-old has been watching R rated movies at Dad’s house? Or what if, like two of these children, Mom drinks excessively in their presence? Perhaps your concerns are more mundane. Will they even remember to brush their teeth, or will Dad take it seriously that Jenny is afraid of the dark? Or maybe you’re the parent who only has them for a few weeks a year, and you’re wondering how you can let them go back “home” to your former spouse who doesn’t consider good parenting far up on his or her list of priorities.

Handing over your children to someone else, even if it’s their parent, can be quite nerve-wracking. After all, if you and your ex-spouse shared all the same values, chances are you wouldn’t have divorced in the first place. But you did divorce because something wasn’t right. And while it’s virtually impossible for a divorce to be entirely one person’s fault, I think it’s almost as impossible for the blame to be distributed equally. Chances are one person is more to blame, probably because of selfishness or irresponsibility. Turning your child over to a selfish person goes against every protective instinct you have.

As kids get older, these problems can magnify, because often the less responsible parent sets the tone for how the children are raised. The allure of living at Dad’s house where there are no rules, or moving in with Mom because she’ll let me have a beer, can pull them away from a stable home. Kids tend to rebel in their early teens, anyway; how much more destructive that rebellion can be if they have the chance to actually move out!

This puts many divorced parents in a bind. Do you loosen your own rules to make your home more attractive? What if your ex-spouse is bribing your child to come live with her, so that she can get more child support? Do you give your children money yourself so they won’t leave?

These are ridiculous conundrums which no parent should have to face, and yet far too many do. I’m afraid I don’t have any easy answers, except to say this. Children need both their parents. As hard as it is, encourage your ex-spouse to have a relationship with your kids. Your children will be exposed to things you don’t like and may even be harmful. Nevertheless, there’s nothing you can do except to keep the big picture in mind. Remember how harmful it is to have no relationship at all with a parent, and try your best to hold your tongue and just raise your children the best you can when you do have them.

That means, though, that you don’t relax your rules. When you do have your kids, you’re going to have to work even harder than other parents to make sure they know they’re loved, and to instill in them good values, because you’re working against another powerful force. Your children have already had the stability knocked out of their life from the divorce, so they especially need to be raised with a firm moral foundation. This won’t guarantee they make the right choices. It won’t guarantee you won’t end up an Unaccompanied Parent later on. Nevertheless, it’s what being a parent, single or not, is all about.

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