Ex-etiquette: If child asks you not to tell other parent something, find out why

Q. I have been divorced for six years. My son is 14. When he wants to tell me something important, he starts the sentence with, “Mom, don’t tell Dad, but…” I promise him I won’t say a thing, but I feel very guilty not letting his dad in on some of the conversations. Since my son says he prefers to be with me, the last thing I want to do is betray his trust. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. Stand back, the red flags are flying.

First, it’s “our” son, not “my” son, and if you adopt that mindset, you may not be as torn as you appear to be. You have help. It’s not your son and you against dad. It’s dad and you for your son. If your son is asking you to keep something from dad, he’s probably afraid of dad’s reaction.

Or — and this is something parents hate to hear — asking one parent to not tell the other is a subtle way to divide and conquer. If you don’t compare notes, your son is ruling the roost. He can say “Dad said this,” “Mom said that,” “Mom lets me do this at her house,” or “Dad told me it was OK,” and no one is checking to see if it’s true.

That, and “Don’t tell Dad (or Mom),” is also standard behavior, even in biological families who live together. I know I figured out quickly that when I asked my dad if I could do something, he would ask, “What did your mother say?”

So I learned to start a sentence with, “Dad, if Mom says I can go, may I?” Then I would tell Mom, “Dad said I could go if you said OK…” I cut down on the back and forth and usually got my way. They never checked — and we all lived in the same house. Just think about the possibilities when the parents don’t live together.

Second, secretly believing your son likes you best is a trap you have set for yourself. Believing those kinds of things, even if it is true, can make you a less effective parent, not willing to discipline when you should because your most liked status could change. Here, again, you have a not-so-subtle mom against dad philosophy going on. You may not acknowledge it, but it’s there.

Plus, “don’t tell” bleeds into other relationships. Abusers tell their victims not to tell. Allowing your children to play that game could very well set the stage for that approach in other relationships that need your attention.

So how do you handle it?

If your child asks you not to tell, take a hard look at why they are asking. If it’s because they simply know the parent’s reaction will be no, explore that with your co-parent privately. If it’s because your co-parent is prone to volatile reactions, that should be explored as well, possibly with a therapist to hold the “angry” parent accountable. Their reaction may change when they understand their children are not confiding in them because of an expected angry reaction.

As far as the language to use, try something like, “Since you will be with your dad (or mom), let’s start with asking their permission. Don’t worry, we will discuss it and let you know our decision. If you would like me to be with you when you ask, let me know, but this is something your dad (or mom) should be in on.”

Parenting is not easy. Co-parenting is harder. But that’s good ex-etiquette.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com.