Many parents find themselves struggling with what it means to put the children first. Especially when a couple is contemplating divorce, the meaning of putting the children first can get really confusing.

If you’re a parent who is asking this question, try to focus on facts. How did you and your spouse grow up? What do each of you believe about parenting? How have those beliefs played out in your parenting to this point? Are each of your ideas about parenting the same or different? What goals do you share for the kids? What separate goals do you each have for the children? Have you each made plans for the children, and what plans are actually in place and on track?

By looking at the answers to some of these questions, it is possible to build a joint dream for your kids based on shared information and shared goal setting. Much like a business, parents need to schedule times to ask these questions routinely as their children grow— and build a business-like plan to address dreams and goals for their children. Your children’s input is important, yet it is still the responsibility of you working together as parents to provide a balanced and united plan for achieving goals and handling crises.

It may be helpful to answer the following questions with the other parent:

  • What do our children need at their current ages?
  • What have they gotten used to?
  • How have they engaged each of us in getting their needs met within the family structure as it has existed?
  • Which of the children’s needs are appropriate for us to address, versus ones that may be attention-seeking?

Children have built-in survival skills. They can ask each parent the same question and do the thing that they wanted to do, based upon the fact that one parent gave them the answer they wanted to hear. “If Mom says no, I’ll ask Dad.” Children seek the easiest way to their goals, and those goals are not thought through with adult minds and perspectives. Parents often take this personally, and feel like the kids are taking sides. Actually, they are just doing what kids do. Looking for opportunities to test their world and gain experience they need to survive.

What children need depends on their ages, as each age has different developmental needs. More importantly, it helps to take a larger view of what structure you put in place to support the children as they grow and, at the same time, create a stable platform from which they can come and go as they seek their necessary life experiences. This does not mean that you and the other parent should forget your own needs in the process, but as with any healthy business, the team needs to have focus, goals, and clear guidelines while supporting each other along the way.

Set aside time that you routinely meet and plan with the other parent. It can be monthly, quarterly, or whatever schedule works for you both. Using some kind of shared calendar that both of you can see and add to will help with scheduling appointments and activities for everyone.

Come together to discuss the questions the children have before providing answers, especially when there is an issue that might potentially cause disagreement. The key is to provide a united front as co-leaders in the business of raising your children. This is the meaning of putting the children first— not resigning yourselves to ignoring your own needs, but coming together as co-parents to establish ground rules and goals that work for everyone.