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Operate a family under written rules? Not possible in your chaotic life? Too much like running a strict boarding school?

In his seminal book Family Rules, Dr. Ken Kaye explains why written rules solve most children’s issues, prevent squabbles, shape behavior, and keep parenting even handed. Not only that, but children can learn from watching those rules applied to their siblings.

Dr. Kaye’s book stresses that written rules can be just as useful, maybe even more so, after a divorce. Here are excerpts from Family Rules (2005):

The events that create a single-parent family are power forces in shaping a child’s development. A parent’s death, desertion, or divorce leaves emotional wounds in the child just as it does in the remaining parent.

Discipline may be necessary, but it will not be sufficient to heal the wounds. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge, “My child is in pain and needs professional help.”...

When the bitterness between you and the ex-spouse has slacked off a bit, it feels good to exchange a remark or even just a knowing smile with the one other person in the world to whom your children are as special, their development as marvelous, their needs as urgent as they are to you.

But there are dangers on that road. All forces converge to pull the two of you into over-involvement with one another.

The reality is that your family has broken up. You are divorced or you are getting divorced, and if the children are living with you then you have to make the decisions

Keep the co-parenting consultations to the minimum necessary to sustain Dad’s cooperation. But the children’s father should not be the main person you rely on as your sounding board or counselor in setting rules.

Since you cannot afford to be undermined, you will need to respect your children’s father’s feelings, values, and opinions.

But divorced families too often use joint decision making as a way of denying the reality of the divorce, or of maintaining the same habitual patterns of conflict that characterized their marriage.

When you catch yourself falling into that trap, you will know that you have carried the idealistic notion of co-parenting too far.

The principal is that when the children are not with you, other people are in a better position to enforce rules than you are; but they can only be expected to enforce their own rules, not yours.

The non-custodial parent sincerely wants to be helpful. That parent should also have a set of at-home rules, and some of them are bound to be different from those of the custodial parent.

You don’t have to resolve those differences. Such differences in rules for different situations cause no problems for children. They are used to it, from infancy onward. ...

Keep money issues entirely separate from visitation.

If you are paying child support, pay it with unerring regularity.

Refuse to discuss other questions, such as extra money for camp tuition or music lessons, when the child is present.

If the child wants to ask about money – for example, why you declined a request to pay for half his music lessons – treat it as a sincere and legitimate question on his part.

Don’t let yourself get defensive, assuming that his father put him up to it.

It doesn’t matter if he did. Explain your reasons just as you would have done if there had been no divorce. ...

A study has shown that people typically take two to four years to complete the period of mourning that follows the end of a marriage.

Even a bad marriage is a powerful emotional bond, which, when torn apart, creates a wound that will heal slowly. But the average divorced person remarries in less than three years, still in the midst of that process of recovery.

The children, especially, have barely begun to give up the fantasy that their parents’ marriage will be restored. ...

Are single parents more likely to need written rules than married parents? Not necessarily.

Many children of single parents are extremely cooperative, so they and their parents never fall into the vicious circle of behavior problems, which leads to nagging instead of rules, which leads to more behavior problems.

Parents under stress need written rules. And being single is one factor that might make you a parent under stress.

Some of your biggest difficulties are likely to relate to time and money.

Two people can handle their children’s needs as long as one of them can earn enough money, or as long as they can earn enough money by both working and sharing child care.

A single parent, on the other hand, not only has to support the family, but care for the children.

In addition there is the problem of spending time with other adults.

No child can or should meet the parent’s need for companionship, but your social life decreases your time with your child and adds to your expenses.

If, instead, you cut back on adult relationships (romantic and otherwise), you probably increase your stress.

Clear, written rules and expectations for your children will help you be a better parent under stress, but they will not make the sadness, grief, anger, loneliness, or depression go away. Those internal stresses require time, friends, and sometimes professional counseling. ...

In the first years of my own divorce, almost any innocent conversation could lead to a fight, which only produced distress for all of us. The solution was not to talk at all.

The best period was during the second year, when for four months we exchanged not a word: I simply picked up and delivered the child on schedule, and neither of us found it necessary to call the other to request any revisions.

Eventually we had amicable, constructive conversations about our son every few months. And by now we’ve had joyous graduations, a wedding, and a happily shared grandchild. ...

Ultimately, your principal effects on your child’s development will not come from what you do to them or for them. It will come from the kind of respect they have for you, as a person.

And it will come from the respect they see that you have for them.

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