How to stay connected with your kids as a single parent

This is an article I originally wrote for ReachOut Australia. The edited version can be found on their website here.

I am a divorced dad with five children. When my marriage ended almost ten years ago my ex-wife kept custody of the kids. For the first couple of years the children stayed with me every second weekend until my ex-wife remarried and moved out of Sydney. Suddenly I found myself hundreds of kilometres away from my children and without the financial means to fly or drive the required distance every second weekend to see them. It was a tough time for me, but I learned a lot of tips for communicating with my kids from a distance that work equally well even if you are just around the corner.

When you’re apart.

A lot of single parents worry that by not being there 100% of the time they are damaging their relationship with their teenager. Well, I am here to tell you that it is possible to be a non-custodial parent who sees their children on an irregular basis and still have a positive influence on their lives. My three older boys are living proof. They were teenagers throughout the divorce and while I was always there for them I was not always there with them. They are in their twenties now, living hundreds of kilometres apart, but we talk often and whenever we get together I still get a big old hug and kiss from them. Here’s how to stay in touch when you’re apart.

Technology is your friend.

Phone calls are an obvious method of communication, but they are not the only one. Apps such as Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, FaceTime, Skype and many others, will allow you to keep in touch. Sometimes it will take a combination of apps to stay connected. My youngest talks to me via SMS, Instagram and FaceTime. My oldest three are on Facebook and Messenger. They all have their own preferences and if they seem to be ignoring you on one platform it’s probably because they’d prefer to use another.

Here is a little tip inside a tip for you, try to avoid overdoing it on the social media comments. Everything you say is visible to all of their friends, which they may find embarrassing. Sometimes it is best to talk via a private direct message.

Be patient.

A lot of single parents worry that they may be bugging their teenager when they call, text or message. The hardest part about communicating with your children as a non-custodial parent is that they may take a long time to reply and sometimes not at all. Sometimes they just simply forget. I am still going through this problem. I know my sixteen year old son gets my messages because his sister tells me, but his replies can be days later. To overcome this problem I have found it useful to start a message with a comment about something he is really into then, once I have his attention, I can talk to him about other things. Although this method is relatively successful, it doesn’t always work and sometimes I just have to be patient and wait.

When you’re together.

Here are a few tips for spending time together that will benefit your relationship going forward.

Maintain your dignity.

It doesn’t matter what the reason for the separation is, or how horrible the relationship has become, please try to avoid saying anything nasty about your ex-partner in the presence of your children. Kids do not want to take sides. They love you both and are confused as to why you are no longer together. Making disparaging comments about their other parent will alienate them from you and make it harder to connect.

Find a common ground.

I had four boys before I got my little girl. All of a sudden things went from footballs to Barbies. Just because your child likes different things doesn’t mean you won’t connect. You will however have to put in a little more effort to do the things that they like to do, but it is worth it in the long run.

Avoid the ‘Disneyland Dad’ scenario.

When you do get to see your kids try not to overdo it with treats, presents etc. You are their parent, not their best friend. Bedtime should be the same at your place as at home. Table manners should not be forgotten just because you haven’t seen them in a while. Help them with their homework and don’t leave it for the other parent to do last thing on a Sunday night. I know from experience avoiding the Disneyland Dad scenario is hard, but your children will respond better to you as a parent than a cash machine.

And when you’re alone.

We have all felt that deep sadness when the kids go home. Alone in an empty house is a terrible feeling and the temptation to let yourself go is always there. My only advice here is to take some time to look after yourself.

If you have ever flown on a plane you will remember the safety brief given by the hostess before take-off;

‘If oxygen is required a mask will drop from the ceiling. You must fit your mask first before helping others.’

The reason they say this is to make sure that you are going to be strong enough to help in case of an emergency. The same rule applies at home. When you are feeling low take a walk on the beach or in a park. Wander around a museum or an art gallery. Get some exercise such as the gym or yoga. And while you do these activities reflect on all the wonderful things you did with your teenagers during their visit. This will keep your spirits up which is essential for your wellbeing and remember, a fit happy dad that can kick a footy, go on a picnic, or take them for a bushwalk, is much easier to communicate with.

Supporting your teenager to figure out what they want to do

This is an article I originally wrote for ReachOut Australia. The edited version can be found on their website here.

“Family life is a work in progress. You only get in trouble if you have to be right and you have to show them who’s boss.  If you are human, it goes much better.” Raising Boys, Steve Biddulph, Published September 1st 1998 by Celestial Arts and revised several times since.

I am a father of five children, four boys and one girl. Three of my boys have left school already, the fourth is currently in year eleven and my daughter is in year eight. I was running an IT business when the Internet was a newborn, Netscape was still a browser and Windows was only 95, and the changes I have experienced in that short space of time have been phenomenal.

What the future of work looks like for our children will be way more complex. This isn’t a bad thing because it means that our children will have a wider variety of experiences throughout their working lives than perhaps we had. It does create added stress for our children though and that is where we can really help.

Tip 1: Listen.

This is probably the best tip I can share with you. My wife and I are both University graduates, so naturally we expected our children to follow in our footsteps. Our first born finished year twelve with excellent results and we began pushing for him to choose a degree. I still remember our conversations,

“But mum, I don’t want to….”

“Of course you do son. Medical research will enable you to work anywhere in the world.”

“But dad, I don’t really like…”

“Computerisation is the future of the workplace mate. With a degree in computer science you will have a career for life.”

He was doing a double degree in computers and biomedical science and hated every single second of it. What he did love though was the weekend electrical work he was doing with the company that looked after the apartment complex where we lived. When they offered him an apprenticeship he came to us to talk about dropping out of Uni. His reasons and his arguments were very good, so we drew up a list of pros and cons with him and asked him to promise us that he would take a gap year to see how it all worked out. He is an Electrical Engineer now, with his own business.

Tip 2: Let your child direct the conversation.

As parents we are all very good at spotting when our child has a problem. Getting them to talk about it though is not always an easy task. I had spent several months trying to figure out why my son was having such a hard time in year ten. Up until that point he was an outgoing child with a wicked sense of humour, yet almost overnight he had become withdrawn and quite sullen in nature. His mother had broached the subject of moving him to a trade college. This thought had brightened his mood a little so I decided to let him direct the conversation about his future. It began with me sharing something about my experience as a teenager…

“I wish I had done a trade instead of going to Uni.”

“Really dad?”

“Yeah. I mean, my degree has been awesome for my career, but it would be so cool to be able to build a house or repair a car don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“If you could be any kind of tradesman you wanted, what would you pick?”

I listened intently that night as my son talked about carpentry, Rugby League, plumbing, girls, electrical wiring, the beach, engineering, his group of friends… and although the topic didn’t always stay on track, it ended up circling back to his future, but on his terms. He is currently in year eleven studying construction, electrical engineering and auto mechanics, and he is happy.

Tip 3: Remain calm and don’t simply give in.

We all can agree that shouting, screaming and losing your cool will never result in a positive outcome. Neither will throwing your arms in the air and walking away. However, facial expressions such as rolling your eyes or a slow shake of your head can also produce a similar result. Whilst they may happen by accident these actions can have the same devastating impact and send your teenager back into his / her shell. Breathe deeply, relax your muscles, focus your thoughts and deliver your responses in a calm way. That will keep the conversation going and hopefully lead to a satisfactory conclusion.

Tip 4: Back their decisions.

When the negotiations have finished, and the decision has been made, get behind it one hundred percent. No second guessing, no revisiting old arguments. You have empowered your child to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. You have taught them negotiation skills and how to organise their reasoning. Regardless of what happens next, just be there for them.

“You invest a lot in your kids, from the sleepless nights early on and the frightening trips to the emergency room, to homework assignments and a million miles of taxi driving. The great thing is that everything you put in counts, and with a bit of luck, one day they will realize it. Love adds up to something. It’s indestructible and immortal and carries long on after your own life is over. Who could ask for more?” ― “The Secret of Happy Children”, Steve Biddulph. Published June 15th 2002 by Marlowe and Company, New York.

Further resources.

  • Australian author and Child Psychologist, Steve Biddulph, has written many books on raising children. I have read, “Raising Boys”, “Manhood”, and “The Secret to Happy Children”, which I can thoroughly recommend. He has written books on girls as well and with my daughter entering her teenage years it won’t be long until Mr Biddulph once again makes his way onto my Kindle. His books are readily available through Amazon and his web address is https://www.stevebiddulph.com
  • Sir Ken Robinson, best selling author, number one TED speaker, education and creativity expert. His website is here: http://sirkenrobinson.com/ and the number one TED Talk of all time can be viewed here: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity
  • Your school counsellor or pastoral care provider.

Lessons to teach your teen about the future of work.

This article was originally written for ReachOut Australia. You can read an edited version on their website here. It was also picked up by rural newspaper The Land. You can read their edited version here.

I am a father of five children, four boys and one girl. Three of my boys have left school already, the fourth is currently in year 11 and my daughter is in year 8. I was running an IT business when the internet was a newborn, Netscape was still a browser and Windows was only 95, and the changes I have experienced in that short space of time have been phenomenal.

What the future of work looks like for our children will be even more complex. This isn’t a bad thing because it means they’ll  have a wider variety of experiences during their working lives than perhaps we had. It does create added stress for our children though and that is where we can really help.

School is great for teaching our kids ‘hard skills’ such as English, math, and science. But, if we want our children to thrive after school there are plenty of other life skills we can teach them. Skills that revolve around communication, self-discipline, problem-solving, resilience and work ethic, can be taught at home from a very early age and will help your child to handle an uncertain future in the world of work.

Communication is key.

Teenagers grunt a lot. As a father of five I have become quite an expert on speaking caveman with my kids. Teaching communication skills that go beyond text messaging is important. The jobs of the future will require strong communication skills so here are some simple tips I used to teach my children:

  • From when they were young, I let them answer the phone and the door, and taught them how to take a proper message.
  • I always make eye contact when talking to my children. As a result they do the same when talking to me and to others.
  • I let them answer for themselves when they visit a dentist or doctor. I fill in the blanks but my child is the one having the conversation.
  • I make sure that basketball caps and headphones are off at the dinner table so that our family can engage with each other at

Balance the budget.

Teaching our children how to manage money from an early age will help them to develop self-discipline and problem-solving skills that are important for the jobs of the future. In terms of them earning money…

  • Instead of providing pocket money, give them money for helping with the household chores.
  • Encourage them to get a weekend job.

Once they have an income you can teach them how to manage it. Scott Pape, ‘The Barefoot Investor’, talks about separating your income into three ‘buckets’ – called ‘Blow’, ‘Mojo’ and ‘Grow’. I tweaked his method a bit and followed it with my kids using jars.

  • Jar 1: Around 70% of their income was used to pay for their ‘daily’ expenses such as after-school snacks, or a trip to the movies with friends.
  • Jar 2: Around 20% of their income was used in case of an emergency, such as a birthday present or a last-minute invitation during the school holidays.
  • Jar 3: The remainder went into this jar and was used to save for long-term goals such as a new video game.

However you wish to arrange the ‘jars’ is up to you, but teaching your children the value of money will help them to develop a strong work ethic and financial intelligence. It also means that you will eventually be able to shut down the Mum and Dad ATM!

There have many options

As a parent we want the best for our children, so it can be very tempting to push them towards certain paths. I have been guilty of this, and my oldest boy ended up hating his time at uni. Here are a few things to talk to your teenager about:

  • Their ATAR does not define them and they can always change their min A lower than expected ATAR score does not mean they can’t change courses mid-stream.
  • Consider vocational studies. According to a 2018 report from the Mitchell Institute, almost 44% of the projected one million jobs expected to be created in Australia between 2016 and 2020 will require a VET qualification.
  • What about an apprenticeship? Apprenticeships can provide a solid foundation for further employment in many different fields of study.

Discussing the option of completing their high school course work in a vocational education setting could help reduce the stress your child is feeling and give them a broader range of career opportunities moving forwards.

And when year 12 is complete…

Take a gap year!

I wish I had done that. Instead I went from school to TAFE and then to uni. It cost me an extra eight years of my life, during which time I got married, had children and went grey. Taking a break from full-time study is not a sign of giving in. My three older boys spent time in retail, labouring, landscaping, bar work, cooking sausages and waiting tables. They travelled (paid for from the funds in Jar 3), immersing themselves in different cultures and broadening their horizons. The people they met and the experiences they had, both at home and abroad, helped them to align their values with their careers. As a result of taking a gap year, one boy is doing a degree in sustainable development, another is studying to be a paramedic and the oldest is running a successful business as an electrical engineer.

Tips for a successful gap year.

  • Make sure that your child funds their own gap year.
    • Working multiple jobs will help prepare them for life within the ‘gig’ economy.
    • Funding their own fun will improve their financial intelligence.
  • Don’t be discouraged if they start off a little slow. One of my boys sat on the couch for a month before he got going, whereas another one was labouring straight after Christmas.
  • Relish their experiences. Hearing about their plans and discussing what they’ll do can be a great bonding moment.

Variety is the spice of life

One thing to remember is that we won’t be the only ones teaching life skills to our children. As they grow and mature they will meet many different people along the way that will have an influence on their lives –  teachers, colleagues, friends, even their boss at work. Mentoring is important for your child. It will build upon the communication skills you have already taught them and will help them to improve their networking skills.

Don’t be disheartened if they find mentors with opinions different to your own. Your teenagers are becoming young adults and will invariably develop their own views on politics, the economy, the environment and so on. Being exposed to a diversity of views will give them the best shot at finding their way in an uncertain future.

No one knows our children better than we do. With the information above, and our own personal experiences, we have the knowledge and resources to teach them about the future of work.