Bonding is essential to building trust and developing a relationship between a parent and child. It is the entire foundation of the “joint custody presumption” and the philosophy behind parents sharing equal time. It is also embedded in adoption through required fostering periods and hours of educational requirements for prospective adoptive parents.
As a lawyer, I have always followed the idea that equal bonding requires equal time because, well, I have no choice as a professional. As a person, however, I’ve always questioned whether the number of hours is really what matters.
I was pleasantly surprised when I got my answer from personal experience.
While I was living abroad fostering our toddler, my husband was back home working. We were concerned about whether our daughter would develop a close bond with him during this indefinite waiting period, which ended up being over six months. We hoped we would do enough that she would at least recognize him when she saw him again in person. Imagine my surprise when he came for his first visit not only did she recognize him, but she was more attached to him than she was when he left two months before that. It was a matter of seconds before they were rolling around on the floor laughing. By the time we got home, it was almost as though she had never been away from him.
In retrospect, there were a few things we did that made all the difference in developing this long-distance bonding experience between father and daughter. Here are our 4 biggest tips for those co-parenting long-distance over video chat.
1. Set A Routine
Like everything with kids, it’s always better when part of a routine. We established the routine of video calling twice a day at certain times. Not necessarily times on the clock, but times in her activities. For example, we always call right when she woke up, even though that time varied a bit day-to-day. When it’s part of the routine, then kids know what to expect and look forward to. It sets them up to make the most of the limited time they have on the video call, and also to rely on the other parent to be there when the phone rings. We also had certain phrases, rhymes, and activities they would share during each call. This gave her something to look forward to, and it really helped us see the changes in her development by noticing her participation over time.
2. Supplement The Routine
In addition to the regular calls, we always made sure Daddy was present via video for the big things. If she did something that made her extra proud, we’d call Daddy. If she was throwing a tantrum, we called Daddy. Any time we wanted her to remember that both of us are there with her, we would video call.
This one may be hard for parents who are co-parenting after divorce. It requires excellent communication and a willingness to be interrupted 24/7, especially if the parents live in different time zones. In my experience, though, this part really is key for the bonding experience. While a routine is excellent, it’s being there for the big little things that mean a lot to kids. I really believe this was what helped our daughter know that we were both there for her, even if we were not both with her. From a parenting perspective, it also helped us stay consistent and on the same page about discipline and consequences.
3. Ignore The Limitations
It is easy to get caught up in the limitations of video chatting rather than focusing on the opportunities. Sure, you can’t be there in person, but how often can a toddler put her Daddy in a shopping bag and carry him around where ever she wants? That’s something that can only be done when Daddy is on a little phone screen.
Toddlers have a very small attention span, so they are going to be hard to actually talk to for a long time. But that doesn’t mean that laughing, singing, and making funny faces have to stop. If the other parent can help, that makes the calls a bit more enjoyable. The parent who is physically present can create better camera angles and explain if something relevant is happening that is not showing up on the screen (like a wave, for example). The younger the child, the more patience it will take, and the more likely you are to be staring at walls and ceilings more than actual faces. If you can get past that, you can have long, fun video calls that make a lasting impression.
4. Save the Grown-Up Talk for Later
Do not mix video visits with adult conversation. Of course, any time my husband got on the phone, there were things I wanted to update him on and things we needed to discuss. It was important that this conversation not take precedence over our kiddo actually goofing around with Daddy. No matter how perfectly a video visit goes, it is still only a snippet of time in a child’s day. As long as she wants his attention, it should be hers.
When did we talk about everything else? A separate conversation when she was asleep was the best time. Or, during a long visit, there were frequent times when she wandered off to have a few minutes of independent play. During those snippets, I’ll turn the camera so that he can watch her while we talk about our own stuff. For divorced parents, this allows you to keep the visit focused and keep the adult conversation separate.
Overall, interacting with a child in person is the best way to form a bond. When that is impossible to do, though, technology gives us amazing opportunities to keep those relationships strong.
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