Noncustodial fathers urged to keep `eye on the prize’

By Pamela H. Sacks

Dr. Jerry Saffer and Dr. Dan McClure, both clinical psychologists, had been friends for years when they started taking Tootsie Roll strolls.

“We would take a walk and have two Tootsie Rolls in the middle of the afternoon,” Dr. Saffer said by telephone from his home in Baltimore. “We began to talk about how many children we were seeing from separated and divorced homes.”

They realized that part of the problem arose from part-time fathers who spent awkward, intermittent time with their children and had no idea how to talk to them or who they really were. Often, the psychologists found, these fathers deeply wanted to change their relationships with their sons and daughters, but they didn’t know where to begin.

With more than 50 years of experience between them, Dr. Saffer and Dr. McClure were certain they could be of help. But how?

Dr. Saffer recalled with a chuckle the day Dr. McClure burst out, “Saffer, you want to write a book? I’ve got a title.’ ”

Dr. Saffer was game, and the two men went to work.

What they came up with is a no-nonsense guide for the noncustodial father titled “Wednesday Evenings and Every Other Weekend: From Divorced Dad to Competent Co-Parent”($20, The Van Doren Co.). The 269-page book offers a blueprint for how to put aside the anger and resentment common to divorce and develop a working relationship with an ex-spouse for the sake of the children.

The book states frankly that parenting is a learned skill that is hard work and often comes with no immediate rewards. It requires maturity and fundamental knowledge of child development.

Parenting is also an art, say the authors, both of whom are married, have children and have never been divorced.

“The art of parenting involves applying this knowledge and these skills in a flexible, enthusiastic and caring way, so that your child’s development can unfold in a free and healthy manner,” they write.

Dr. Saffer earned his doctorate in clinical psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He taught grade school for a year in the Chicago public schools, did post-doctoral work at the University of Rochester and then joined the psychology department at the University of Virginia, where Dr. McClure earned his doctorate in clinical psychology.

In 1973, Dr. Saffer opened a private practice in child psychology in Charlottesville, Va. He and Dr. McClure practiced together for many years.

Dr. Saffer understands both personally and professionally how challenging children can be. After a quarter century in practice, he felt he no longer had the stamina to devote all his working hours to children. He took additional training so that he could treat adults.

“I was too old to see kids all day long,” he explained. “It takes tremendous energy. You’re talking at their level all day long.”

He recently retired and moved with his wife to Baltimore, where he is engaged in religious studies. Dr. McClure continues to practice in Charlottesville.

Dr. Saffer and Dr. McClure demonstrate just how basic good parenting can be in a section of their book called “The Real Quiz.” No father should be happy with anything less than a perfect score, they write. There are 20 “must-dos.”

Here’s a sampling:

Do you know what supplies your child needs for homework?

Do you have a cookbook in the house?

Do you know how long different foods last in the refrigerator and in the pantry?

Do you know which side your child’s hair is parted on?

Are you aware of the top 10 most common accidents around the home and how to prevent them?

Do you have any idea how much it means to a kid to have his father attend to these issues?

Both authors dedicated the book to their own fathers — and to the fathers they met over time who were wonderful with their children.

“They kept their eye on the prize — their youngsters,” Dr. Saffer said, adding that if children are not lost to their parents when little, they will maintain loving ties long after they have become adults.

When Dr. Saffer and Dr. McClure completed the book in late 2000, they approached several large publishing companies. The editors were enthusiastic, but the salespeople were skeptical.

“They said, `Men won’t even stop and ask for directions. What makes you think they’ll buy a book that tells them what to do?’ ” Dr. Saffer recounted.

Judicial statistics and the authors’ experiences told a different story. About 10 percent of cases involving child custody take up 90 percent of the court’s time.

“That 10 percent will be in and out of court,” Dr. Saffer said. “There are lawyers who have sent their kids to college on a few cases. You can’t believe the thousands of dollars that get spent.

“The other 90 percent want to be the best they can be,” he continued. “We are writing to that other 90 percent who want to be good parents to their children, but just don’t know how to do it.”

“Wednesday Evenings” was published in 2001, shortly before the United States entered Afghanistan, shifting attention to books on the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Yet, the book is proving to be a sleeper of sorts. Lawyers urge their clients to read it and mediators recommend it. It got laudatory reviews in the Virginia State Bar’s Family Law News and the American Bar Association’s Family Advocate. Dr. Saffer, who is marketing the book himself, will be at Tatnuck Bookseller in Worcester Thursday evening to talk about his views.

“Judges are saying, `You ought to read this book,’ ” Dr. Saffer said. “We are talking to state agencies, and they are very interested.”

There are two sets of data on how children of divorce turn out. One set is pessimistic; the other indicates that, with good parenting from both the mother and father, children often come through happy and well-adjusted.

All the more reason for fathers to “keep their eye on the prize,” the authors say.

“We are convinced it’s not the divorce itself, but it’s the post-divorce handling that makes a difference,” Dr. Saffer said.