Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Higher Calling -- Good Phone Etiquette

An issue that comes up occasionally is how to manage regular phone contact between a parent and a child when the child is with the other parent. Usually, it involves a younger child. Over the years, I have seen many battles over telephone contact. The fights are often proxies for the more direct issues between parents who are vying with each other to claim the relationship with the child. Sometimes, the conflicts will continue for years, with no apparent winner.

Courts have come up with some fairly standard solutions that will sometimes work. If the parents are really dedicated fighters, a court order is usually needed. The order must specify a lot of detail, or the parents will continue to fight over the dates, time, duration, and circumstances of the calls. For example, an order might provide that the non-custodial parent could talk on the phone with the child every Tuesday evening at 7:00 p.m. for 15 minutes. Sometimes, a decision is needed about whether or not it will be take place on a speaker phone.

In trying to decide whether to set up a pre-determined call, parents can easily get into the "what if..." game as a means of avoiding the calls. What if we're not home? What if we're eating dinner? What if they are playing outside with friends? What if Junior is sick? What if Sis has too much homework to talk? What if there are friends or relatives visiting? What if she is at a birthday party? What if he doesn't want to talk to Dad? A creative parent can come up with innumerable obstacles to the phone calls and still try to claim s/he is not opposed to the calls, if these issues can be resolved.

Here are some new tools that are being adopted to avoid some of the silliness and meanness that surfaces in connection with setting up contact between parent and child when the child is with the other parent.

1. Cell Phones. Fortunately, technology has provided many more alternatives to deal with whatever problems can come up. For starters, cell phones have made it possible to have a lot more contact at various times. While not every kid has a cell phone yet, I have it on good authority that every kid 14 or older has one; I know that my son was the last 14-year-old without a cell phone and he has one now. It is easy to make a call to a cell phone and not have to go through the other parent. The phone goes wherever the kid goes, so location and time are not such big factors anymore. Unless the child has very limited minutes available, the length of the conversations is not an issue. With even some 1st and 2nd graders now getting cell phones, and more kids having cell phones each year as they get older, there is a large group of kids who can easily talk with the non-custodial parent.

2. Another option is video conferencing. Like cell phones, more and more families have one or more computers with access to the Internet. With a small, inexpensive camera attached to the computer, it is pretty easy to set up a long-distance conversation with good picture and sound. It's a step up from just a phone call and is really helpful when the parent lives a considerable distance from the child.

3. Texting. OMG, it's something everyone can learn, and kids often seem more comfortable texting than talking. LOL. For adults who aren't familiar with it, and the lingo, you can learn quickly from your children (if you don't mind the condescension). With texting, you're not bound by time, dates or duration, so you can communicate often and casually.

4. Email. Most parents are probably familiar with email and use it often. They are comfortable with the process and have a computer or electronic equipment so they can email. For those without computer or email access at home or at work, there are free computers to use at public libraries and other places.

5. Leave Messages. Although this may be very old fashioned, but it still works. You can call, email or text a message to the child, or you could leave a hand-written note in your child's suitcase, backpack or books.

If you're thinking about utilizing one of these tools, here are some quick thoughts about how to avoid some of the problems that can develop.
  • Don't be intrusive. Don't insist that your preferred schedule must be followed if it seriously interferes with what the child or other parent has planned. Be willing to compromise and don't interrupt legitimate activities of the other parent or the children. Kids don't want to be in the middle of a battle between parents over schduling.

  • Don't be obsessive. Be flexible. Don't let this issue dominate your relationship with the other parent or child. Recognize that circumstances change and unforeseen events happen all the time. You may miss a call or chance to talk with your child, but there will be more.

  • Don't be daily. Let your children breathe. Don't try to talk with them every day, unless there is a special need.

  • Don't try to require a speaker phone or listen in on another extension. Unless there is clearly inappropriate behavior by the adult, allow your child and the other parent some privacy.

  • Don't participate in your child's conversations with the other parent, unless invited to do so. Parent and child are really wanting to visit with each other, not you. Certainly, don't interject your comments in the conversations between your child and the other parent and don't interrupt them.

A little common sense and courtesy will go a long way to helping your child deal with the difficulties involved in living apart from one parent. Although there may be hard feelings between parents, they shouldn't let them show. Instead, the parents should demonstrate good adult behavior by cooperating and allowing, maybe encouraging, contact between their child and the other parent. Everyone will benefit in the long run.

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