Summer fun helps kids, divorced parents strengthen bond

By D. Aileen Dodd
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
07/22/2010

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On a sunny Florida beach, the miles between the homes of Kevin Batson and his 18-year-old daughter, Morgan, wash away like a sandcastle in the tide.

Summer is the season when parents separated by divorce have extended time to visit with their kids, share old memories and create new ones. And exes left behind can take a well-deserved break.

The Batsons get 20 days of summer to bond as father and daughter with a blended family and embark on adventure. This week, Morgan of Columbus is sunbathing with her Atlanta family in Seaside, Fla.

“For 14 years, we burned up the highway -- I saw her every other weekend,” said Batson, a dutiful dad and software salesman. “But as they get older and get into high school, it becomes really difficult. They have so many activities and friends. In many cases, summer is the only quality time you get.”

Navigating summer visitation is not always easy for families split by divorce. Hurdles can get in the way of quality time between noncustodial parents and their kids. Hurdles like family reunions. Summer school. Teens with ties to neighborhood friends and summer jobs. Childhood crushes.

“A lot of teens don’t want to go on one family vacation, and now, because of divorce, they have to go on two,” said Atlanta attorney Randy Kessler, chairman-elect of the American Bar Association’s Family Law section. “When you are 10 years old, you want to go to Disney World with your parent. When you are 15, you want to go to Destin with your friends.”

If divorce agreements don’t address the “what ifs” of visitation, planning summer vacation or holiday fun for both sides can be an issue. Since 2009, Georgia law has required divorcing couples to establish a parenting plan to explain in detail how visitation will work under special circumstances and how other decisions will be made.

“A parent that doesn’t think about their child first may be more concerned about their own time with the child than with the child’s goals,” Kessler explained. “You’ve got to think about the future, look at a calendar and figure out any potential problems. Can Mom always take the child to family reunions? Will Dad get a few weeks of uninterrupted time in the summer?”

In Georgia, at age 14, a child can choose whom they want to live with, but they can’t decide not to visit with somebody, Kessler said.

Family therapy experts say involving divorced kids in summer visitation vacation plans can make the experience more exciting for them as they get older. But moms and dads shouldn’t blow the budget and be "Disney Land" parents planning pricey getaways they can’t afford. And they shouldn’t get offended if their kids have other plans that shorten their stay or would rather bring a half sibling or friend along on the vacation.

“My feeling is children should always get their say, they don’t necessarily always get their way,” said Anda Harris-Martin, a therapist with Visions Anew of Marietta, which provides divorce resources for women. “We can ask children about the kinds of activities they like. ... But often with children living in between two homes, there is less money for camps and outings. I also think parents should be considerate of the fact that teenagers are busy. They should be flexible, but I don’t think spending time with a parent should be negotiable.”

Morgan Batson brought a high school friend from Columbus with her on the trip to Seaside with her dad, her stepmother, Julie Batson, and her half sisters, Meredith, 11, and Lauren, 7 . When the Batsons went to the Bahamas earlier this summer, Morgan came alone.

"It's been a blast," said Morgan, who is in Florida through Saturday and will soon head to college. "I took off work to come here. I have two half sisters. It is really great to see them. With my dad, just being able to see him builds our relationship. In high school, I was in competitive cheerleading. It was hard to coordinate schedules."

Exes left behind should make the most of their time and not try to control the summer visit with demands on their ex or by overwhelming their kids with instant messages.

“They shouldn’t be texting, e-mailing and calling their kids constantly when they are visiting with the other parent,” said Visions Anew founder and CEO Margot Swann, a remarried mom. “Stay busy. Do things that are fun. Get together with girlfriends.”

Joy Rollins, a divorced mom in Cobb County, says she has more time to travel and exercise since her 10-year-old Torria has been visiting with her dad in Texas.

"School got out on May 21, and she left on May 22," said Rollins, a social service director. “I’ve been to Jamaica, Texas and Savannah. ... I go out to eat. I go on dates. Dad has her for six weeks. It’s just enough time for me to collect my thoughts. I find comfort in my quiet time and know that she is going to be OK.”

Spending uninterrupted time with a child helps love to grow between them and their noncustodial parents, added Batson.

"When you spend 10 days with your child, it's a big difference," he said. "At the beginning of the vacation, she is still the visitor, but by the end, she feels like part of the family."

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