Straddling two addresses is difficult enough for an adult, but for a child who has limited control over his environment, and is tasked to follow the rules of others, it can be a losing proposition. Each household may have its own personality, ground rules (spoken or unspoken), guiding values and principles, but this arrangement can cause confusion and uncertainty for children shuttled between the households. However, like all things difficult, there is opportunity! Here, the opportunity is to create a clear set of rules for both households to live by, behaviors to aspire to, and principles to embody day-to-day.
Create a “Family Manifesto” – consider what is important for the well-being of you and your family and what rules would enhance household harmony and happiness. Keep it simple – think 10 Commandments (God) and mission statements (Franklin-Covey).
Clarity creates safety. It sounds simple, however, it is imperative to articulate and establish the rules and values that will guide your household. Kids need to know what behaviors are expected of them as well as which will not be tolerated, and why. Children will be more likely to obey the house rules, and do so with a sense of accomplishment, if they take part in creating them.
- Engage the children’s imaginations and ideas by framing questions like this: If you could have whatever sort of household you wanted, what would that look like? If you were the mayor of the town, what would your rules be and why? Is there someone’s home that you like to visit? Why?
- Pitching in = Buying in, and offers children who may be feeling disempowered the much-needed opportunity to be heard, respected and taken seriously, and to gain some control of their environment.
- Strengthen familial relationships by relating and demonstrating respect for all participants.
- Focus on the principles, not the people. This activity looks to principles and rules; it does not find fault with people (new partners of ex-spouses, for example, who have different approaches to parenting). It looks for common principles that both households can agree are important.
- In order to be happy and successful, children (and adults) need cohesive and stable structures. While it is unlikely that both households will agree on everything or have the exact same values, they can most likely find 5-10 fundamental principles upon which they agree. These guiding principles will remain the same no matter which household the kids are in, and they will ensure some much-needed stability to the children’s routine. Also, the act of getting together to discuss these matters can bring the families closer together.
Celebrate this familial accomplishment and the growth demonstrated in working together with another family faction.These rules do not need to be kept on the down-low; they can be illuminated and posted on the wall for all to admire and obey.
The Family Manifesto exercise provides a vehicle for adults who otherwise would not have much opportunity for commonality or conversation, much less to uncover shared values. The exercise should be done in both households, and then all the adults of both households (parents and stepparents, important romantic relations) should compare what was drafted and develop one unified document to be used in both households.* New partners entering the households will have the benefit of learning what has already been established. The unity developed will be a gift of stability and support for all involved.
*The author realizes that this may take an extraordinary amount of maturity for the adults involved. It is a goal and tool to be used when possible and appropriate. Like the Family Manifesto itself, it asks participants to strive high, dig deep (as my assistant counsels) and overcome themselves for a greater good.