“5 Tips for Dads Who Parent Long Distance” originally appeared on The Good Men Project and was reprinted with permission.
My parents were the first to divorce in my small town of Pleasant Ridge, MI. I was 9 years old at the time and I don’t really remember it happening. I can vaguely picture my mom sitting us down in our den and telling us that Dad was moving out, but that he was still our Dad. I immediately ran off to football practice. Life was moving on.
Soon, my closest friend’s parents split. I took him to Taco Bell, sat him down in a booth, ordered a Nacho Supreme, and explained all the benefits of the situation. Two Christmas mornings, two birthdays. Basically, more presents. Within a year, another friend suffered what was slowly becoming an epidemic. We took him to Taco Bell, ordered up a Nacho Supreme, and gave him the good news.
Even though my dad lived in the same town and taught in the same school district that I attended, I rarely saw him. He was dutiful. He showed up to football games, band concerts and plays, but he wasn’t present in my day-to-day life. The year 1978 was a hard time to be a divorced dad. He remarried within a year of his divorce and my stepmother became his world. So much so, that the one evening a week the courts allowed me to be with my father was spent at the bowling alley for “their” bowling league. To be clear, they bowled in the league … I was given a lane of my own at the end of the alley.
Cut to 30 years later and I’m now the dad who had to move out. And I vowed not to be my dad. I was going to be as present as I could in my daughter’s life. And I was. But about a year after my own divorce was filed, my ex asked to leave the state so that she could open a bed and breakfast in New Orleans. I had ended our marriage because I wanted my daughter to have a happy father. Who was I to get in the way of my ex becoming a happier mother to our daughter?
There is a lot to be said about the downside of our social media-fed, online-addicted lives. But for me, my entire world with my daughter was opened wide because of the wonder of video chatting. I fly to New Orleans often to see her, and she spends her nine-week summer vacation with me here in Los Angeles, but our nightly chats on the computer keep me ever-present in her life. And it gives us such a wonderful connection.
In the three years that I’ve been communicating with my daughter over the Internet, I have learned quite a bit. If nothing else, I hope the following tips will at least get you started working toward positive and successful communication with your child, no matter how near or far he or she may be.
1. Make it one-on-one time.
No offense to anyone else, but this is your time with your child. If your situation is like mine, your ex is probably the center of your child’s life during most of the day, so she will be a distraction during your Skype time if she is present.
Trust me. I originally thought it would be best to chat while my daughter was having dinner. That it would keep her focused. It did keep her in her seat for a good 20 minutes, but with her mother present I became an onlooker to their conversation. Now I choose to chat with her after dinner for a pre-bed story. And my ex likes the break. Win/win.
2. Start with a book or story.
In the beginning I would start our conversations by asking my 5-year-old about her day. Her reply was always “good.” Or “I don’t remember.” I know she has an exceptional memory, it’s just not interesting for her to talk about herself yet (I imagine that will come soon enough). What she wants is for me to do things for her. And reading a book or story is the best way to get her focused on me. When the book is done, you can talk about the story — what it meant and how it might hold a lesson for her day. The Q&A will come flowing after that.
3. Make up a signature sign off.
This is huge. It really helps to close up your time with your child and lets it happen naturally. Initially, when signing off, I would say, “OK. I’ve got to go now. I love you. I miss you.” My daughter would naturally say “I love you” back, but then ask another question in an attempt to stall having to go to bed. But once, early on in our chats, she was being particularly funny and said, “Well … Byyyyy-eeeeeeeee.” And it stuck. When either of us says that (after acknowledging that we’re done with the chat), it’s easy to get “off the air.”
4. Make a schedule.
When my ex and daughter moved out of the state, it took a while to realize that, like everything in a child’s life, our chat time needed to be fairly consistent. We tried breakfast, but with me in the mix it became hard to get her fed, dressed, and off to school on time. It’s hard enough for kids to get out the door in the morning without the distraction of an online conversation. We tried texting each other during the day when we had a few free moments, but that was hard to coordinate. Finally, we agreed that following dinner and before bath-time would be a good time to chat. We’ve kept it consistent and the results have been better for all of us.
5. Remember it’s not the time, it’s the effort.
Quite often my daughter will not be in a very talkative mood. It used to get to me. My ex would text, asking if I was available to Skype. I would hop on the computer excited, but my daughter wanted nothing to do with me. This was a HUGE let down and bothered me to no end. But I came to realize that just making contact was a very important part of our relationship. Even if it’s just to say “goodnight” and “I love you.” Her knowing that I am here — thinking of her and wanting to see her before she heads to bed — is extremely important, both for her and for me.
More from The Good Men Project:
- Your family needs support for the journey
- The 8 things a seasoned dad wishes he could tell every kid in college
- 5 ways to raise confident kids
- An open letter from a SAHM to her daughters: Your dad is that kind of man
- The secret ingredient for a better marriage