Separation and divorce is difficult for you and your spouse. It may be even more difficult for your children, sometimes called "the innocent victims of divorce."

You and your spouse can ease the burden of separation and divorce on your children. Whatever your spouse's attitude and actions, you must help your children through this period. By helping your children, you help your case.

The following are guidelines I developed not only from my professional experience, but also from my personal experience.

1. Children are not pawns and they are not weapons. Never try to use your children to hurt your spouse or to help your case.

2. Children should maintain good relationships with each parent. Regular visitation with the non-custodial parent should be encouraged no matter how much you may resent the other parent.

3. The children probably love both parents despite either parent's shortcomings and faults. This should not be changed. Parents must not bicker or make derogatory comments about each other around of the children.

4. Neither children nor their love can be bought. Do not try. If your spouse tries to buy the children's love or support, do not compete.

5. Children sometimes try to use parents by telling the parents unfavorable things about the other parent. Stop this immediately. Also remember that children may exaggerate, even your own precious darlings. If you learn something bad about your spouse from your children, do not repeat it; the hearer will assume, at best, you had inappropriate conversations with the children or, at worst, you pumped them for information.

6. Children strongly want to believe that their parents will reconcile and life will return to normal. Once a couple separates the chances of a reconciliation are statistically poor. Do not hold out false hopes of reconciliation.

7. Children may try to make you feel guilty so they can have their way. Do not feel guilty, and even if you do, do not let it affect your good judgment.

8. Children should not feel like visitors in a parent's home. If financially possible, the non-custodial parent should maintain separate rooms, clothes, and toys for the children. This creates a feeling of belonging, decreases the need for packing for visitation, and decreases bickering among parents about what was or was not packed and what was or was not returned.

9. Children and parents are under a strain at the beginning of visitation. Avoid short visitations of only a few hours, except for special occasions. Longer visitations, 24-48 hours, allow everyone to relax and enjoy each other's company. My personal and professional preference is for no visitation less than forty-eight hours. I oppose special visitation for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, children’s birthdays, and parent’s birthdays.

10. A spouse who was a lousy parent during marriage will often become a better parent after separation. Allow your spouse the opportunity of improving as a parent.

11. Telephone calls can help children and the non-custodial parent maintain a close relationship but telephone calls can also disrupt activities and create problems of homesickness with the children. Work out guidelines and then live within the guidelines.

12. Parents who abuse each other will rarely deliberately abuse children. Absent specific past child abuse, do not worry about the children being with the other parent. Even if your spouse never changed a diaper or fixed a meal, do not assume that he cannot handle overnight visitation. If you worry about your own ability to handle the children overnight, try it. You may be a better parent than you think. Everyone benefits.

13. Children often resent dates.6 Do not expose children to dates before divorce. After divorce do not expose children to dates unless you and a particular date have a serious relationship.

14. Sometimes children do not resent dates but become very fond of a particular date. If you then break up with that person, it can be like another separation and divorce for the children.

15. Children often resent stepparents, stepbrothers, and stepsisters. Do not force relationships. Do not encourage children to call stepparents "mother" or "father" or give hugs or other signs of affection. First names are usually best. Affection may come with time.

16. If you are the non-custodial parent, do not have a child’s hair cut or ears pierced without the permission of the custodial parent. I receive many complaints about this each year. Hair styles and ear piercing are the prerogatives of the custodial parent.

What is reasonable visitation will depend upon the circumstances and will vary from family to family. I generally recommend:

a. Forty-eight hours every second weekend (that is every other weekend, not the second weekend of each month).
b. One week at Christmas. When I was younger and less experienced, I recommended that the parents alternate Christmas Day each year. I now believe that it is easier, simpler, and better for the custodial parent to have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day each year with the other parent’s visitation to begin at 3:00 p.m. on Christmas Day if the parties live reasonably close or at 12:00 noon on December 26 if the parents live over 100 miles apart.
c. I prefer that the non-custodial parent get the entire Thanksgiving weekend with the custodial parent getting the entire Easter or spring break. As an alternative, if visitation falls on the Thanksgiving weekend, then it should begin the evening before Thanksgiving and continue until the normal Sunday ending.
d. I prefer that the custodial parent get the entire Easter or spring break with the noncustodial parent getting the Thanksgiving weekend. As an alternative, if visitation falls on the Easter weekend, then it should extend from the day that school is out until the evening before school begins again.
e. Two to four weeks each summer. There is a tendency to separate the weeks of the summer visitation, such as one week during each summer month or two periods of two weeks each. It is far better for the children and the parents if the entire summer visitation is consecutive.
f. I strongly oppose visitation for the mother on Mother’s Day, for the Father on Father’s Day, or any special visitation provision for any birthday of a child or a parent. Mothers should spend Mother’s Day with their own mothers and fathers should spend Father’s Day with their own fathers. Celebrate birthdays on the first visitation following the birthday. I know of one case where the lawyers and the guardian ad litem agreed upon Halloween visitation. Other lawyers may strongly disagree with this opinion. Shuffling children back and forth on these days is not fair to the children and is not fair to their parents.
g. Any other visitation agreed upon by reasonable parents who love their children.

Good and reasonable parents rarely follow the visitation schedule because they can agree to changes and alterations suiting the parents and the children. Definite schedules are still advantageous because each parent then knows what visitation will be if they cannot agree to variances.

Reasonable use of the telephone also varies by circumstances. As a general guideline, older children should be permitted one call per day to the non-custodial parent. The non-custodial parent should be permitted two calls per week to older children. Telephone calls should be limited to fifteen minutes. It is the responsibility of the non-custodial spouse to end the call at the expiration of a reasonable or agreed time. During extended visitations, such as Christmas or summer, the custodial parent should have the same telephone rights. When a parent complains he or she is denied access to a one or two-year-old child, my initial reaction is that the complaining parent is using the telephone to harass the other parent. One and two year olds are not great conversationalists, particularly on the telephone.

Telephone calls should be avoided during visitations of forty-eight hours or less, particularly to younger children, as the call interrupts the visitation and frequently causes the child to suffer an acute attack of homesickness.

Telephone calls should not be made early in the morning (before 8:00 a.m.), late at night (after 8:00 p.m.), at mealtimes, during known favorite television shows, or at such other times as are likely to cause inconvenience or annoyance.

If you learn only one thing from this book, I hope it will be to treat the other parent of your child or children with dignity and respect.

My Favorite War Stories #10:
Christmas on December 26

My ex-wife and I did not agree on much but after several years of rotating Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we agreed that it would be best if she always had Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and I always had December 26 through January 2. We also agreed that having the entire Thanksgiving holiday weekend each year would be best for me.

At Thanksgiving, my entire family was together. The adults drew names of adults and the kids drew the names of kids for Christmas presents. Later, after five college graduations, we only have one drawing.

Each family celebrated Christmas Day in its own way but on December 26, after my children arrived, the entire family would gather at someone’s home for a meal followed by each person opening the one present they received because of the drawing.

It is a very special occasion. One year the children had to come before Christmas. Everyone was out of sorts for the entire holiday.

My Favorite War Stories #11:
The Birthday Turkey

I rarely had my children on their birthdays so I developed the tradition of the Birthday Turkey. The Birthday Turkey, known as the BDT for short, lives in an extinct volcano in the Andes and on good little kids’ birthdays he flies out of his volcano, swoops down into the kid’s bedroom and leaves an unwrapped birthday present under the bed. The first visitation after a birthday, the child who had the birthday upon arriving at my house, would run to his or her bedroom to see what the Birthday Turkey left.

Once, when my niece Margaret was being car-pooled, another fiveyear-old said she was having a birthday. Margaret asked, “What is the BDT bringing you for your birthday. The little girl, obviously puzzled asked, “What’s the BDT?” Margaret, clearly amazed, said, “The Birthday Turkey. You mean, your family does not have a Birthday Turkey?”