I messed up. I unwittingly brought up the touchiest topic on earth, and with my stepdaughter, no less.
In a blended family situation, it’s very likely the giving and receiving of child support payments is in play. In each state, there’s a formula used to determine what the payments will be.
There is so much talk about “deadbeat dads” who don’t pay their court-ordered child support — and those who pay only part and fall behind. There are moms and dads who have trouble making those payments and really want to, and there are others who shirk their responsibility altogether.
But when do we stop to recognize the parents who make these payments religiously, who have modified or drastically transformed their lives to do so?
I was taking my 8-year-old stepdaughter to school one day last year, and drove up beside a homeless guy sitting on a park bench. He was directly in view as we sat waiting at a red light, and the image of his weathered skin, tattered clothes and pained expression was striking. “I’m so glad I don’t have to worry about getting the things I need. (My stepdad) pays for everything,” my stepdaughter said. When I gently told her that her dad gives her mom money each month to make sure that her needs are provided, my stepdaughter became highly agitated.
“No he doesn’t! That’s a lie! If that were true, my mom would have told me!” she cried. I backed down immediately. In my effort to recognize her dad, I had hurt her. This was a reality she couldn’t handle, and I didn’t know why. I only knew I felt badly for tipping her apple cart.
I asked my good friend Betty Bobay — a licensed marriage and family counselor for 15 years who seven years ago transitioned into the school system as a guidance counselor — what might have caused my stepdaughter’s outburst.
“It is very rare that the parent receiving child support tells the children where the money’s coming from. Even adult children of divorce in their 30s and 40s struggle to believe the paying parent supported them if that wasn’t made clear early on. Children tend to adopt the worldview of the parent they spend the most time with, resisting explanations of the world which clash with that parent’s teachings,” says Bobay.
I asked Betty: What’s the best way to inform children about child support, and is there a certain age where kids are developmentally ready to hear about it?
“Any age is fine. It’s about who is delivering the information, how that information is shared, and how often.” Betty offered these pointers:
Start early. There is no particular developmentally-appropriate age. Actually, the earlier the better.
The paying parent talks. The paying parent, and not the stepparent, should be the one communicating the information, because when a stepparent conveys unwanted news, children view it as suspect.
Own your caregiving role. Frame the conversation around the concept of caregiving — don’t make this about one-upmanship. As a support-paying parent, you are in an important caregiving role, and knowledge of your constant commitment to care for your children rightfully builds their respect for you and trust in you. In a traditional family, the children know who supports them, but the breakdown of this knowledge in families of divorce can be detrimental to children.
Relay the value of support. Stay away from talking about numbers. Kids don’t understand the value of money, but they understand the value of things. For example: “I gave your mom money this week so that she can buy your food for the whole month and pay for your school clothes. I want you to always have everything you need.” OR “I gave your mom money this month so that you can go to summer camp. I want you to have a great time at soccer camp with your friends.”
Communicate regularly. The best time to talk to your children about child support is when you make your payments. Daily conversations about child support are overbearing, but a short monthly talk is reasonable. Over the years, those kindly-spoken messages of love set in, and your children understand and believe that you took care of them while they were growing up, even though you couldn’t always be physically present due to the divorce.
Have you told your children that their other parent contributes to support them? If you are the paying parent, do your kids know the truth about your commitment to them?