One of the most overemphasized negotiating points in custody conflict resolution is the frequency of phone contact with the parent a child is not with on any given day. The custodial parent might want telephone contact when the child is with the noncustodial parent. The noncustodial parent might want telephone contact one, two, even three times per day when the child is with the custodial parent. ("I should be able to say 'Good morning' to my child!" "I should be able to say 'Sweet dreams' to my child!")

Often in these situations, parents fear that they are not being given "their rights" with respect to their children. Telephone contact usually isn't the real issue here; rather, the issue is the right to intrude on the other parent's time and to control the other parent's schedule by making sure they are in the "telephone contact place."

It is nice for parents to be able to speak to their children by phone, but telephone contact with parents whom kids already see on a regular basis is not a crucial determinant of their mental health. This is true at age six and age forty-six.

My experience has shown me that many children do not particularly like talking on the phone. There is a period in early development where children are fascinated by the noises phones make, and they want to imitate the adults who are using the phone. But most children older than four years do not want to stop playing to come to the phone and may be very fickle or obstinate about doing so, in spite of a parent's best efforts. At eight years old, children are self-conscious about what they say on the phone because they do not want to be overheard. By twelve years old, if the person on the other end of the phone isn't someone from school they just finished talking to five minutes ago, they do not want to get on the phone.

Sometimes kids do not mind talking on the phone. That is a great benefit to the parent who wants to say hello. When this is the case, keep your phone calls brief, tell your child you love him, ask how school is, and then say "I love you" again and say good-bye. This process takes about five minutes.

Don't Use the Telephone to Harass Your Co-Parent

Parents sometimes use telephone contact as an excuse to harass one another. This is expressed in the following ways:

  • Demanding unreasonable amounts of telephone time
  • Demanding that a parent be in a certain place at a certain time for telephone contact every night
  • Using telephone time as an opportunity to interrogate the children
  • Recording conversations so that the child unwittingly becomes an instrument to get a parent in trouble
  • Hanging up the phone when a parent calls and letting the child think the calling parent doesn't care about her
  • Hovering over the child while he is on the phone
  • Making your child feel bad about wanting to speak to the other parent
  • Making your child crazy with the thought that he should be calling you, so that he panics when he cannot make the call for some legitimate reason
  • Demanding that a child carry a "special phone" that is just for the purpose of receiving calls from the other parent
  • Telling your child, "That's enough, get off," and then removing the phone from the child's hand
  • Demanding that a child "check in" when on visitation so that the custodial parent knows the child is "safe" (If you are genuinely worried about this, you should be appearing before a judge who can determine whether the visiting parent should have supervised visitation or whether you are overprotective and inciting fear in your child.)

When co-parenting relationships are bad, don't expect even simple things like telephone calls to be easy to set up. If you tell your child you love her often enough, she will not need to hear it on the phone. If you do not put pressure on your child to call because you know the co-parent makes an issue of it, you will be doing your child a favor he will appreciate.

Good phone contact is a few times a week between visits or shared parenting time. It doesn't have to be every day. If it can be every day and everyone is happy, that is fine. Do not expect your children to give you a minute-by-minute itinerary of everything they did during the day, and do not use your telephone contact time for "intelligence gathering" in your custody war.

Quick Tips

  • Don't spend phone time peppering your children with questions about what they are doing. Most young children do not like to speak on the phone, mostly because they do not like to be interrupted from what they are doing. Learn to make appropriate "small talk." This is how a typical phone conversation should go: Say what you did; then ask how the child's day has been, and listen; then say, "I love you, and I will see you soon."
  • Prepare your children when it is time for a telephone call from the other parent. Say, "Mom [Dad] is going to call to see how your day went. When the phone rings I want you to stop what you are doing and talk for a while."
  • Do not snoop on children's telephone conversations with the co-parent. If something bad happens during the call you'll hear about it soon enough.