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Long Distance Dads

[Frank responds to a divorced father asking for advice on keeping in touch with his kids. Note that some technology mentioned in this article is less pertinent today]

Circumstances and jobs resulted in my ex-wife and I settling far apart after the divorce five years ago, she in Indianapolis, me in Oregon. She has primary custody of our two daughters, 7 and 15. We agreed from the beginning that co-custody could not work in our situation.

Now my kids and I live 5 hours apart by plane and are separated by 3 time zones. Nevertheless, we stay actively involved with one another. They travel as often as school schedules and finances permit, spending most of the summer with me. Maybe even more important is the daily contact. I use the telephone, fax, mail, Fedex and computer to try to keep a constant presence in their lives.

I was the child of divorced parents and saw my father only every couple of months. We never had much to talk about. A kid's time frame is short -- what I did today, this week. There's no "fill me in on the last two months."

My ex and I have always agreed on the importance of the girls having two parents, even in the bitter days around the divorce. I'm lucky there. She has put no obstacle in the way of my relationship with the kids. To the contrary. She laid down an early rule for her household: When Dad calls, whatever we're doing stops, even if it's dinner, or playing with friends, etc.

Here are some suggestions from my experience:

  1. Vow to come as close to daily contact as you possibly can.
  2. Set a regular telephone time that works for them (somewhere between school and dinnertime is good). Then make it work for you, even if it means darting out of a meeting and having a quick conversation.
  3. Follow school progress carefully. Make notes if necessary. Ask "What's happening tomorrow at school?" Then be sure to ask about that event after the fact. Meet with the school principal, explain your situation and ask to receive duplicate mailings of ALL communications, from report cards to fundraising flyers (they'll be glad to send those). Make sure you meet each year's teachers. If nothing else, it gives you the basis of something in common to joke about. "Does she still dye her hair bright pink?"
  4. When schedules conflict and you can't talk in person, leave a long, silly message on the answering machine.
  5. Encourage them to call and write you, but don't hold your breath or have an anxiety attack when you are the one doing all the calling and writing.
  6. The fax is terrific. Set up with auto dial, even a young child can put a drawing in and push one button. You can get a copy of an exam, an essay or whatever. You can send a cartoon or whatever will provoke conversation.
  7. Do not take "nothing" for an answer, as in "What did you do today?" "What are your plans for the weekend? etc. Drag it out of them? Remember, part of what you're doing is teaching them to become adults, and eloquent conversation is a rich gift for any child. This is usually not much of a problem if you have daily contact because your questions are specific: "What happened when you read the frog essay to the class?"
  8. Conversation is a two-way street. Even if they don't ask, talk about what's happening in your life. My girls really like my lover and show it...when they are in Oregon. It's as if he doesn't exist when they're back in Indianapolis. So, I introduce him into the conversation: "Guess what silly David did today?"
  9. E-mail is a great supplement to the telephone. It's fun for them, and can work from as young as five, as long as they know how to get in. Responding is a different matter. When you don't have keyboard mastery, it's painful and boring to type a two-line letter. Do encourage keyboard skills with Mario Teaches Typing as early as possible.
  10. Mark every holiday on your calendar and send a small gift or at least a card. Do not be late. Separated kids are just waiting for some demonstration that your love has faded.
  11. I have to confess that mail has been my least successful tool. I can't get them to respond, even when I send pre-addressed, stamped envelopes! Maybe to them it's an old-fashioned device. If you talk daily, a four-day-old letter isn't going to have much news in it by the time it arrives.

I highly recommend a book, Questions From Dad, by Dwight Twilley, published 1994 by Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc of Boston. It deals precisely with the topic above. Though its focus is on letters, the principles, the tricks are the same in invoking useful, lively responses from children that allow dialogue.

My final point is that I'm not sure how much it matters what either you or your kids say in a conversation compared to the fact that you are talking. My seven-year-old and I tell a lot of riddles and make up silly words. We always end our calls with a two-minute "battle of the good-byes" in which we race through "good-bye" in every language, plus some translations not previously known, like "tigerhead". It never fails to crack us up and end the call on a high note.

I hope this helps. I would welcome any new tricks, ideas or whatever to help me and the other long distance dads.

Regards and tigerhead,