Q: I purchased a cell phone for my oldest son. I pay the bill. When my kids go to their dad's, he takes away the phone and tightly controls how often the kids can call me. The kids are supposed to have "unlimited and unrestricted phone access" to each parent. My ex tells me just to call him and he'll put the kids on the phone, but then he never answers when I call. My ex tells my son that I don't pay for the phone, that he does because he pays me child support. Is there any sort of law or legal guideline about who owns and has control of my property (the phone) when it's at my ex's house?
A: There are so many red flags waving here that they're distracting you from the primary problem: That you and their dad communicate so poorly that you're looking for legal guidelines as to who controls a phone. Both of you have lost sight of what's really important, your children, and you have put them right in the middle.
There are lots of good reasons why kids should have cell phones, but it sounds like this one was purchased with the express interest of talking to the kids when they are not with you. That may not have been done as a way to improve communication with the children as much as it is a way to avoid dealing with their other parent. When supplying a phone only complicates the issue, the parent who bought the phone starts getting territorial (I pay for this phone and you can't control its use), and that's when you have kids sneaking into the back bedroom to call Mom or Dad. You just want to touch base, but Dad sees it as an invasion of his privacy, even a forum for tattling when things are not done the same at both homes, so he starts to control its use when the kids are with him.
Your court order probably does say, "unlimited and unrestricted phone access," however, most parents and children find that one or two calls a day is enough. More than that often feels intrusive. You and your ex need to decide among yourselves the time that the noncustodial parent should call and stick by it. And, when the phone call comes through, answer it and let the child have their privacy.
No parent should talk to their children about court orders, and telling a child that anything you buy for them is covered by the child support is a self-serving power play and is not said in the best interest of the child. Very bad ex-etiquette!
Jann Blackstone-Ford, Ph.D., and her husband's ex-wife, Sharyl Jupe, authors of "Ex-Etiquette for Parents," are the founders of Bonus Families (www.bonusfamilies.com).