I've seen the effects of divorce on children from every angle. My parents divorced when I was in my twenties, and I divorced when my child was small. In my professional life as an attorney, I've been assigned to represent children in contested custody cases. I've also taught classes on custody and child support law. As a result, I've given a lot of thought to the challenges faced by divorced parents when it comes to raising their kids.
All parents worry about their children. Divorced parents' worries are on steroids. We wonder if our kids would have been better off if we had stuck out our marriages until they went to college. We worry that our kids won't be accepted by their peers because they don't come from a "traditional" family. We worry that by being divorced, we've denied our children a "happy childhood." The list of worries goes on and on.
The truth is that divorce does not have to affect your child's ultimate success in life. All of my closest friends have parents who are divorced, and they all are incredibly successful people, both professionally and personally. The key for us, as divorced parents, is to provide our children with an environment in which they can excel, even though mom and dad don't live in the same house.
While I am by no means the perfect parent, there are some things that I have learned about how to be a better divorced parent. So here is my list of reminders for all of us divorced Moms and Dads.
Reminder #1: Provide a Stable Home Environment.
Stability and structure are important to all children. Multiply that by a thousand if a child's parents are divorced. Divorce is disruptive and unsettling for children. So you need to be sure to do your part to keep their world as calm as possible. Your child doesn't want you to operate like Britney Spears or Robin Thicke. Your child wants parents that are normal -- even boring -- and responsible so they feel like the grownups in their lives have things under control. So drop off your kids and pick them up from school on time. Continue to have family dinners, pack your children good lunches and feed them wholesome breakfasts. Have a tidy, well-run home. Make sure that both you and your home are a dependable source of comfort for your children.
Reminder #2: Divorce Is Never an Excuse for Bad Behavior or Poor School Performance
Life can be hard, and unfortunately, having divorced parents is not the worst thing your child is going to endure. So allowing your child to use divorce as an excuse for doing poorly in school or for bad behavior sets them up for failure. Why? Because kids need to learn to meet their responsibilities regardless of their circumstances. The best gift you can give your child is to teach them to live a No Excuses Life. If you demand good behavior and grades even in the midst of a divorce, your children will meet those expectations. They will learn that they need to work hard and do what is right, even when they are having a bad day. That is a lesson they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Reminder #3: Be Yourself, Not a "Pretend" Parent.
Your kids know what type of parent you are. You may be strict. You may be frugal. You may be a neat freak. It doesn't reassure your kids to see you become a Disneyland Dad or Toys R Us Mom after the divorce, if you were a different parent before it. If you were strict, it doesn't help your kids to suddenly take a loose approach to behavior. Kids see through that, and the message they get is this: "Everything has changed. My parents aren't going to guide me or set boundaries for me anymore." Your kids want you to be the same parent you always were. That gives them more security than a splurge at the mall.
Reminder #4: Don't Disparage the Other Parent. Be His or Her Cheerleader.
This piece of advice has been said so many times, that it borders on cliché. However, it bears repeating because every divorced parent has made this mistake. It isn't enough to not say anything bad about the other parent in front of your children (though that certainly is the bare minimum for proper parenting, whether you are divorced or not). You need to be the other parent's cheerleader. Now I understand that you may not think the other parent is the best thing since sliced bread. That is why you got divorced. However, children need to feel proud of their parents. And they need to be reassured that their parents love them deeply. Those beliefs are the building blocks for your child's self-esteem. It is your responsibility as a parent to reaffirm to your child that the other parent is not only a great person, but that the other parent loves them.
Reminder #5: Explain To Your Children That You Are Getting Divorced, But Omit the Details.
Divorce is overwhelming for children, and depending on their age, it can be very confusing. It is hard for parents to explain divorce without going into the details, but children (even adult children) don't want to know the "Who Did What to Whom" stories. A simple, non-accusatory explanation for the end of the marriage is all they want from you. Similarly, your kids don't want to know about your court dates, support payments or your struggles with adjusting to life after divorce. If you tell your children all the messy details, they unfortunately will carry that information with them for a long time, if not forever.
Divorce doesn't need to be a tragedy for children. It happens, and it is sad. However, being a child of divorce can result in your child being a more compassionate and less judgmental person. It also can lead to your child being a more resilient person. What is important for us as parents is to do those things that prevent our children from being burdened by divorce and that allow them to become the wonderful individuals they were created to be.