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Growing Concerns (06/27/2004)
By Dr. Martha Erickson
A parenting question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota

June 22, 2004

Question: My brothers see the Fourth of July as a time for loud (and illegal) fireworks, too much beer, and dirty jokes. This is not what we want for our kids, and we're trying to figure out how to make it a special time without falling into these old family patterns that have made holidays unpleasant for us in the past. How can we do this?

Answer: You've taken an important step just by recognizing that you don't want to repeat some of your family's patterns and that you want to create some new traditions for you and your children. You didn't mention your children's ages. But, as you think about holiday plans, keep in mind that kids of any age value time when their parents step out of their workday roles and join them in play.

One of my own fondest childhood memories is of my grandfather taking me to the Fourth of July festivities in his tiny hometown in southern Iowa. Every year we'd gather at his house and ride in his pickup truck to the little street carnival around the town square. We would eat foods that I never ate on ordinary days. He would proudly introduce me to all of his buddies in front of the courthouse, and--best of all--he would go with me on every ride, from the pokey old merry-go-round to the thrilling Tilt-A-Whirl. Year after year, I'd end the day sitting on the same worn old blanket, snuggled in my grandpa's arms, oohing and aahing together over the fireworks. Two things are especially important to me as I look back on those holidays. My grandpa really played with me, and we did the same things year after year--a real tradition.

When I grew up and had children of my own, their grandparents were many miles away and there was no street carnival to seduce us with its wild rides. But, in our urban neighborhood filled with young families, we created our own silly and wonderful Fourth of July tradition. With balloons and crepe paper we decorated every bike and stroller on the block. Then we blasted marching music from a boom box and had a great parade. My kids and I will always remember the uninhibited dad who showed up each year in a raincoat, flippers and a goofy hat, banging two garbage can lids as huge cymbals.

So, on this Fourth of July, try to see through your children's eyes. Look for the wholesome fun in the ordinary things around you and see where that takes you. If possible, join with other families who are looking to create new traditions. While you're at it, bring out the flag and teach your children the special meaning of this holiday. Celebrate together the precious liberties we have.

Question: My ex-husband has moved to another state with his new wife, and the court has granted his request for our 8-year-old son to spend two months with them this summer. Our son has never been away from me for more than two nights, and he barely knows his stepmother. I'm worried about how he'll deal with this long separation. What can I do to make it easier on him?

Answer: You're off to a good start by asking the right question. Your son is likely to take his cue from you, picking up on your positive, encouraging attitude as he moves on to spend some important time with his dad and develop a relationship with his new stepmother. Since this is his first time away from you for a long period, he probably will experience some homesickness. But there are several things you can do to ease the separation and help him make the most of his time with his dad.

* Because the emotional tone you set will influence his feelings, let your son know that, although you'll miss him, you are glad he and his father will have this special time together. Following a divorce, a child does best when both mom and dad continue to cooperate as co-parents, supporting and encouraging the child's ongoing close connection with both parents.

* Although you may be experiencing a range of feelings about your ex-husband's new wife, she now is part of the network of caring adults who will influence your son's development and learning. Prior to the summer visit, do what you can to help her and your son feel comfortable together. For example, encourage your son to talk with her on the phone, help him write a letter or e-mail message telling her what he's looking forward to during his summer visit, or suggest he send her one of his art projects or a school assignment of which he's especially proud.

* When it's time to pack for your son's trip, suggest he pack some items that will make his space at his dad's house his own. Having a few familiar objects in his bedroom at dad's new house will help him feel more at home.

* Slip a few stamped, self-addressed postcards into your son's bag and encourage him to write you a quick note about the fun things he's doing at dad's. Don't hold your breath waiting to receive the cards. Whether he writes or not, at least you will have communicated to him in one more way that you expect him to have a good time with his father. Children often worry that the left-behind parent will feel lonely or jealous, so these positive steps on your part can provide important relief.

* Arrange with your ex-husband for a comfortable frequency of phone calls with your son during his time away. Especially during this first major separation, your son may feel more at ease knowing he can call you whenever he needs to. Often, kids have less of a need to touch base just knowing that they can. Although you are appropriately focused on your son's needs during this separation, no doubt you'll have feelings of your own to deal with (just as your ex-husband probably feels a sense of loss that he's not with his son on a day-to-day basis). Post-divorce situations are hard on children and parents. So make sure you have a good support system in place for yourself during the months you and your son are apart. Call friends for a movie, a walk or a weekend getaway. Or make time for those hobbies you seldom can fit into your family schedule. You and your son will both benefit if you're refreshed and relaxed when he comes back home. 


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