He Doesn’t Do That at My House!

Divorced parents often see two totally different sides of their children. Mom might see a son who is surly, lazy, and uncooperative; whereas Dad sees that same boy as friendly, funny, and relaxed. Mom gets on the phone with Dad and complains that their son has an attitude problem, won’t do his chores, and speaks to her disrespectfully and Dad cannot believe she’s talking about the same boy. Dad will utter the famous phrase, “He doesn’t do that at my house,” and instantly the couple is thrown back into the marital conflicts that they couldn’t resolve that lead to the demise of the relationship in the first place.

To say, “He doesn’t do that at my house” is to imply that the other parent must be doing something wrong or that the child doesn’t like the other parent or doesn’t respect the other parent, or that somehow, the other parent is just doing an inferior job at parenting. It’s such an inflammatory phrase, it is hard to just leave it alone. Mom probably fires back with something like, “Well, that’s because you don’t make him do anything when he’s over by you,” or “How would you even notice, you’re never home?” or “Of course he does, you just don’t see it.” End of discussion about the child. The rest of the pointless discussion will be about each parent’s shortcomings as perceived by the other parent. An enormous waste of time.

Often, when two parents cannot cooperate and co-parent their children while they are married, they end up divorced and the divorce does not usually help them co-parent any better. In fact, it typically makes it even harder because the child now has two separate household environments in which to operate and the chances are very good that the child is behaving differently in each environment. Everyone does that.

Behavior that is appropriate at the beach is not appropriate in a grocery store. An outfit that would look fabulous at a charity fundraiser would look ridiculous at your friend’s birthday party. Language and volume that is used in the bleachers at the football game would not be appreciated or welcomed at a golf tournament. We all learn what types of behaviors are expected, encouraged, welcomed, rewarded, or punished in various environments.

When a couple divorces, they create two households that are generally quite different than each other and quite different than the shared household they had together. Sometimes there is quite a rebound effect where activities, habits, or elements that were suppressed in the marriage can not only be expressed in the new environment, but they may occur in an unusual abundance in the new household. For example, a husband prohibited from watching sports during his marriage may purchase a big screen TV, a surround sound system, and subscribe to 24 sports channels upon emancipation from his wife. Likewise, a woman prohibited from buying anything to enhance the household might go on a shopping spree and turn her new residence into a designer’s dream – a haven worthy of appearing on the pages of Better Homes & Gardens.

What that means to the children is that, in addition to having to cope with the break-up of their family, they also lose the home environment with which they were familiar, and they need to learn two totally different environments and how to behave in each. Kids are reasonably resilient and they are quick learners and most adapt quite adeptly to the changes. If Mom is more lax than Dad, they quickly learn they must do their chores at Dad’s house, but not necessarily at Mom’s house. If Dad leaves them unsupervised for long periods of time, they may sneak friends over to Dad’s, when they would never try that at Mom’s. If they learn that Mom comes home from work too tired on Friday night to do anything, they may want to go to a friend’s house, but if Dad comes home from work on Friday night and stays up late watching action films, they may want to stay home and hang out with Dad. Thus, the child would look like two totally different kids to each of the parents.

If you happen to be divorced, don’t spend a lot of energy thinking about how your kid behaves with the other parent. You couldn’t control that when you were married and you can control that even less now. Instead, focus on the type of environment you want to have in your household and work to teach your teen the rules and regulations that apply when you’re in charge. They’re really much smarter than they appear and they can learn to adapt to just about any situation to get what they want from their parents. Make sure you’ve set up the contingencies so that they have to behave appropriately to get the privileges that are available in your household. Never mind what the other parent is doing, just focus on what you’re doing. If you don’t like how the kid is behaving with you, change the rules of your household, don’t waste energy trying to get an ex-spouse to change. Again, you couldn’t change them when you were married and now that you’re apart, you have even less chance of changing them.

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