I was originally going to title this article “Technology and Parenting” but I realized that was a whole different subject entirely. I want to focus primarily on visitation because I get a great deal of emails from parents who are afraid they are going to “lose” their children if they don’t get custody or if the other parent moves away with the children. Today we have such amazing and affordable technology that parents can essentially parent from anywhere at any time. I am calling it Virtual Visitation but really it is just another way to stay connected and parent your children no matter what.
Long gone are the days when divorce meant you rarely got to see your children or be involved in their upbringing unless you lived nearby. It does seem though that the mentality is still there. I get emails from parents going through divorce or already divorce/separated that are concerned they will “lose” their children and not be able to have a relationship with them or be involved in the child’s upbringing. I have gotten so many that I stopped answering them and am writing this article instead.
As parents we need to get pass the misconception that if we aren’t in the home with the child then we are just visitors in their life and no longer parents. The basic court ordered visitation schedule is one that just really is horrible for children and parents. On average the visiting parent gets 15% of the time in a month to spend time with their children. How do you parent when you only see your child every other weekend or for some parents who have to live further away, only over the holidays? The answer is you don’t. Unfortunately kids need stability and moving back and forth between homes on a frequent basis isn’t good for them. We need to stop looking at physical visitation as the only time there is for parenting. Children need both parents all day every day and that doesn’t change due to divorce so we need to give our children back their parents full-time regardless of where they live. My solution is a combination of physical visitation and virtual visitation.
Fortunately kids growing up today can have both parents all the time. Technology such as cell phones and computers make it possible to always be there for your children all the time. I understand it is not the same as being there physically but until there is a better way to divide a child’s time in a divorce we need something. Virtual visitation will give both parents a great deal of help. It will help kids stay connected to the parent who lives outside the home, it will help the parent who has custody by alleviating some of the day to day concerns like helping with homework or helping with discipline and it helps the children know that both their parents are still there for them full time.
Parents can make use of free video chat programs like Skype, Windows Live Messgener and Google Chat to see and talk to their children every day, virtual visitation. Cell phones make it possible to call children wherever they are and talk to them every day. Email is a great way to communicate as well. I am finding though that not a lot of parents use these valuable resources. In many cases, it comes down to them not knowing the resources are available, how to use them, or for some it is a cost factor but there are solutions to those problems.
Here are the basics of what you need to be able to talk with and see your children every day and extend the physical visitation with virtual visitation.
A computer is the first thing you need. A computer in both homes is ideal and the goal. Computers have come down in price so much that even on a budget you can find an affordable computer. There are programs out there that allow you to finance a computer over time, if need be. If you can’t afford a computer right off, there are free computers that can be used in libraries and schools all over the world. Keep in mind that you don’t need a computer with all the bells and whistles just a basic computer. The new netbooks that have come onto the market now have webcams built into them and work perfectly for a fraction of the cost of a desktop.
A webcam. Like the computer you need one in both homes so each side can see and hear each other. There are so many different webcams available today that I couldn’t even begin to recommend one. I am partial to Logitech webcams. I have used one by Microsoft and wasn’t really impressed but that is not to say they won’t do the job. I would recommend getting a webcam with a built in microphone, they cost a little more but are worth it. Webcams range in price from $20.00 to $150.00 dollars don’t get taken in by the higher priced webcams. Start with an inexpensive webcam on both sides and see how it works for you before you invest a lot of money in a webcam. I assure you that price doesn’t always reflect value when it comes to webcams.
A microphone and speakers. Seems like common sense but I want to put it out here for the less savy computer users. They make headsets that are a combo of a microphone and earphones to use with the chat programs but I see them more as a gimmick and they aren’t cheap. I suggest investing the money you would spend on a microphone and upgrading your webcam choice to one with a built in microphone. Any speakers will do. Most computers come with speakers either built into the monitor or stand alone speakers. It is a pretty standard item. Like the webcam you don’t need expensive speakers.
You need an internet connection. I have done video chats over a dial up internet connection but that was 10 years ago. I wouldn’t recommend it but it is possible. If you go the dial up route for your internet MSN Live is a better option than Skype (you will read about these later). Broadband is the better choice overall. Shop around for the best deal on your internet service. There is no one right price range for internet service, the prices vary wildly based on location and type of internet service. It doesn’t need to be the fastest available or the most expensive. Basic broadband service will do the job.
The software is free. Do not pay for video chat software. Skype, MSN, and Google are all ones I have used and none of them cost a dime. All you need is an email account and those are free as well through Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo and AOL. You can use any email address though. All three programs work basically the same. There is a chat option where you can type back and forth, there is a calling feature that allows you to call and talk and there is the video feature that allows you to call, talk and be seen. The best part is it doesn’t matter where you are. Whether you are in the same city or in a different country there is no cost at all. My parents lived in Saudi Arabia and I was in Florida. The man in my life is in England and again I am in Florida. Calling on the phone would cost a fortune but with the video chat programs I get to call and see them and it cost nothing.
Skype is my video chat program of choice. You go to the website and download the program and can be up and running in minutes. Signing up is as easy as choosing a username and entering your email address. Skype does use a lot of computer resources and I have known people who don’t like it for that reason. It is free to use so try it out and if you don’t like it switch to a different one.
Windows Live Messenger is another great video chat program. When you sign up for an email account with MSN, such as hotmail or MSN live you get access to Windows Live Messenger free. All you need is a Windows live ID. Going to either of those links will help you sign up immediately and simply for a Windows Live ID.
Google Talk is a Gmail version similar to Windows Live Messenger. All you need is a Gmail email account. You have to install Google Talk and the related video plug in but it is a simple install process and takes a few minutes even for a novice.
I have used all three of those with great results. I am partial to Skype because I like the video quality and the little emoticons the best but all three work great. There are definitely other programs out there so choose what works best for you. Just remember you don’t have to pay for this. If a company is offering you a program and wants to charge you, run away. For general video chatting with family there is no reason to pay for some fancy video chat program that will do little more than the free ones will.
Now you have what you need to get started parenting your children every day and not just every other weekend. You can have times allotted in your visitation agreement that ensure your children are present to talk with you. Consider it an extension of visitation. You will now have physical visitation when you go and pick them up and virtual visitation when you talk to them over the internet with the video chatting.
Our children need us to be parents and to be available all the time. Just because we get divorced doesn’t mean our children have to suffer as much as they did in the past. With virtual visitation you can help with homework, see how their day went, discuss upcoming plans, help the other parent with discipline, coordinate schedules or just say hi. A child knowing that although you aren’t physically in the home but still there in their life all the time is invaluable to everyone involved. Every other weekend doesn’t cut it anymore, it short changes children and parents. Technology has given us the ability to extend visitation into something more than every other weekend and holidays. Virtual visitation is not something for the future, it is here now and available now so take advantage of every resource you can to ensure your children have you in their life every way possible no matter where you are or who they live with.