For the past 3 years, I have served as the director of 4 Your Child, a parent education intervention for non-resident fathers. Through this program, my team and I have had the privilege to serve over 1,000 fathers across the state of Commonwealth of Kentucky. I do this work because I believe that fathers are largely untapped natural resources, so working to help them increase their capacity for taking more actives roles in their children’s lives represents a unique opportunity to positively impact family functioning. As such, I see every father in our program as an asset with the potential to make significant contributions to his children’s healthy growth and development. Unfortunately, many of the fathers in our program lament the fact that their opportunity to apply what they learn is limited because their co-parenting relationships are damaged to the point where they have significantly less access to their children than they would like. In response, we deliver content to help the fathers increase their communication and conflict resolution skills. We incorporate activities aimed at improving fathers’ emotional intelligence, role plays designed to model active listening, and group discussions centered on fathers identifying their parenting and co-parenting hopes and dreams. We have also created opportunities to share our program’s content with some of our fathers’ co-parents so that they can better understand the commitment that the fathers have made to improving their knowledge and skills. The result of these efforts has been several mothers acknowledging that after being exposed to the content of the fatherhood program, for the first time, they were compelled to think about what parenting felt like from the fathers’ perspective. To build on this momentum, our latest project seeks to identify unmarried co-parents who are neither cohabiting nor romantically involved yet have an effective co-parenting relationship. The purpose of this project is to explore these parents’ experiences to learn how they are able to move beyond the fallout of their dissolved romantic relationship to focus on raising their children in a cooperative environment. Following is a sampling of the advice these parents offer to others looking to establish effective co-parenting relationships.

Tip 1:  Identify shared values and use them to make decisions and settle disagreements

Almost all parents want the same things for their children. They want their children to feel loved, safe, and to have opportunities to grow into healthy, productive members of society. To this end, shared values can serve as a foundation for an effective co-parenting relationship. Identifying and documenting these shared values can assist in reducing the temptation to personalize (or demonize) the actions of your co-parent. For example, one set of co-parents we interviewed shared how they were intentional about sitting down to discuss their shared values. One of these values was using travel as a pathway to create memories and experiential learning opportunities for their children. There was consensus on this topic because both parents agreed that they wanted to make sure that their children had opportunities to go on vacations to experience different regions and cultures. It was this shared value of travel that became the tie-breaker when the child’s father wanted to take his son on vacation with him and his new wife at during the same week that the mother wanted her son to accompany her to a family birthday gathering. In recounting the story, the mother discussed how relying on the conversation related to shared values is what helped her realize that her son would likely get more out of going on the trip with his father than to the birthday party with her. Although it was not easy, she ultimately deferred to the shared value framework established by both parents to guide her decision.

Tip 2: Treat your co-parent like a business partner

Several of the parents we interviewed talked about how helpful it has been for them to think about their co-parent as a business partner rather than as an ex-spouse or mate. For those employing this strategy, a business model allows them to engage their co-parent at a level that decreases the influence of emotions. In other words, according to these parents, one need not have a personal relationship with a colleague to work effectively towards a common goal.  Practically, this means that there are documented schedules that drive visitation for the non-resident parent. It also means that email and text messages (absent emojis, exclamation points and words in all caps) serve as the primary mode of communication. For these parents, relying on email and text communication reduces conflict based on misunderstanding and creates a transcript of the correspondence that eliminates he said-she said drama and increases accountability.

Tip 3:  Lean on support networks

Finally, the parents credited members of their support networks with helping them stay focused on minimizing their own self-interest and elevating their children’s best interests. This manifested itself in leaning on family members, friends and even new partners who refrained from taking sides but remained available so that their loved one had a safe place to express emotions and filter thoughts and ideas. For one parent, this meant that she would send drafts of emails to a friend before sending them to her co-parent to check for “tone” or “attitude.” Another parent shared that family members asked her to pray for her co-parent’s happiness when he got remarried even though she admitted that she was still resentful because he had clearly moved on shortly after their break up. One of the fathers mentioned that his brother helped him see that his co-parent was not trying to disenfranchise him, but was simply focusing on the kids when she suggested that his visits be limited to the weekends because his work schedule did not allow him to get home in time to prepare dinner, check his children’s homework, and get them in bed at a decent hour on school nights.

Parenting can be very difficult under the best of circumstances, so having to do so in the context of a conflictual or adversarial co-parenting relationship has to be stressful and disheartening. Today’s society requires more of men than it ever has in order to earn the title of good father. However, we live in a time where fewer people are opting for the traditional, two parent, married nuclear family.  These demographic realities mean that many of the structures that used to buttress engaged fathering are no longer in place. Therefore, in order to help fathers fulfill their socially prescribed roles as providers, nurturers and caregivers, we must encourage fathers and mothers to engage in supportive and empathic co-parenting.

Armon R. Perry, Ph.D., MSW, is an Associate Professor at the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work where he conducts research on fathers’ involvement in the family. Dr. Perry is the co-editor of Fatherhood in America: Social work perspectives in a changing society and also serves as Project Director of the 4 Your Child Fatherhood Program, a parent education intervention for non-resident fathers serving men from across 5 counties in Kentucky. For more information on 4 Your Child, click or call 502-709-9323. To contact Dr. Perry, email [email protected] or call 502-852-3234.