So I have been wasting away thanks to a vicious, irrepressible head cold and trying my hardest to write something funny (and/or ironic) instead of subjecting all you lovely people to more tear-jerkers. But a dear friend has come to my rescue and we have here our very first, bright and shiny, GUEST POST!
Get excited. She is a wonderful writer and this list is highly relevant for EVERYONE. Not just single parents, not just all parents, I mean FOR EVERYONE. Because at the heart of these parenting tips is a single, poignant message:
Words have power; be careful how you wield them.
–Hi, I’m Abby’s friend. We met back when we were both still living in Nashville. While I’m an avid blogger myself, there are some subjects I’m not in a position to write about on my own blog, under my own name. My upbringing is one of those subjects. I usually don’t feel the need to talk about it, but Abby’s recent posts here (as well as others she’s linked to on Twitter and Facebook) have gotten me thinking and inspired me to write out my own thoughts on the subject– but from a backwards perspective:
I’m twenty-seven years old and I am the child of a single mother.
Sort of. It’s always more complicated than just one sentence.
My mother was only nineteen when she got pregnant with me. My dad was twenty-four. It probably goes without saying that they weren’t married at the time. Based on the information I’ve pieced together over the years from them and an assortment of family members, I was definitely an accident and I’m about 75% certain my parents weren’t even really dating (who knew that hookup culture existed back in the eighties?). Since it was the 1980’s and out-of-wedlock childbirth was way less socially acceptable than it is now, they got married.
It was a terrible idea. The older I get, the more I realize just how fundamentally incompatible my parents are, both in terms of their personalities as well as their values and outlooks on life. The only good thing that came out of them getting married is my little sister. Much like Abby and Emily, I would be completely lost without her. I honestly don’t know how I would make my way through life without her beside me. Otherwise, though, the marriage was a total failure. I was four and my sister was three when our parents split up, and we therefore spent most of our childhood dealing with Single Parent Issues.
Having lived through that, here are five things I wish I could have said to my single mother as a child that, had she implemented, would have made things a lot easier:
1. Kids aren’t stupid and they pick up on way more than you realize. I’ve read at least half a dozen articles and books over the course of the past few years that have detailed the multitude of ways in which small children (we’re talking five years old and younger) absorb information about the world around them. Not only do they see more than we previously thought, they are also highly attuned to interpersonal behavior and don’t miss much. So while they may not be able to communicate that they know what’s going on because they don’t have the maturity to process what’s happening around them or the vocabulary to describe it, they definitely know what’s up in ways you probably don’t realize.
In other words: you are being watched by someone who will likely emulate your every move when they’re older. Make your choices wisely.
This brings me to my next point.
2. Everything you do sends a message, and the message that your actions send may be a lot louder than the message that comes out of your mouth. We all know the old saying that actions speak louder than words, and that goes double for kids. They’re like tiny information sponges just itching to expose your every hypocrisy to the entire world.
Example: I was going to describe something that happened when I was younger, but instead I feel like I should take this moment to apologize to Abby for (unintentionally) teaching Eva how to make my Judgmental Face and undermining any and all talks, past, present, and future, on the subject of respecting other people and their choices. (I will not, however, take responsibility for the epic eye-rolling skills. She definitely learned that from you).
Moving right along…
3. Kids become teenagers. Teenagers become adults. Then they wish you’d saved for therapy instead of college. Even if kids were stupid, they pretty much all eventually develop into teenagers and adults later on, and then there will be A Reckoning. Remember all that stuff that your kids picked up on when they were younger? Well, now they have the maturity and vocabulary to process and describe it, respectively, and your words and actions from then will come back to haunt you.
Case in point: when my parents split up, my mother moved back home, an hour and a half away from my dad’s place, because she had nowhere else to go. Rather than moving and taking a job near us, my dad decided that his family, having a job in that area, and acquiring a new wife (who, by the way, detests my sister and me) outweighed seeing us on a regular basis and playing a more active role in our lives. While I was willing to swallow his excuses at the time (because I didn’t know any better), the older I get and the more life experience I require, the more I realize how incredibly selfish his choices were– and just how low my sister and I ranked on his priority list.
Remember, folks, your kids choose your nursing home. Even if you don’t care about scarring them for life with your narcissistic decision-making processes when they‘re little, you should at least consider the ramifications of them figuring out that you’re a giant douche when they get older and wise up.
4. Don’t lie or cover for the other parent when they screw up and do something assholish, and don’t sugarcoat their actions to your kids. You know the old saying, “The truth will set you free, but first it’ll piss you off?” Well, here, it’s “The truth will set you free, but first it’ll hurt like hell.” No matter what happens where deadbeat parents are concerned, the pain’s gonna come, and shielding your kids from it now will only guarantee additional hurt and confusion on down the line. Remember, they’re not stupid and they‘re going to have to deal with the repercussions of these events as adults– and sending them mixed messages now isn’t doing them any favors.
So when their other parent bails on visitation for the third time in a row and they ask you why, an honest, “I don’t know” is a lot better than, “Other parent loves you and will come next time.” One is truthful and allows the kid to have his or her own feelings on the subject, the other is downright crazy-making, even to adults. Rather than putting the onus of the skipped visitation where it belongs (on the deadbeat parent), the evasive non-answer puts it all on the kid. Not only is that totally unfair, it’s a surefire way of ensuring that they start internalizing the blame for the other parent’s screwed up behavior, and that doesn’t lead anywhere good.
Bottom line: “But they love you, so it’s okay if they treat you like crap,” is not a lesson you want to be teaching your kids, especially if they’re girls.
That being said…
5. Please keep the dirty details to yourselves, even when the kids are adults. For the most part, my parents did a good job of keeping their spats out of my and my sister’s line of sight when we were kids. However, as soon as we were both eighteen, the gloves came off and I learned waaaaaaaaaaay more than I ever needed to on the following topics: my mom’s relative hotness when she was 19, each parent’s drug of choice back in the eighties, how batshit crazy my grandmother is, my dad’s penis size and relative prowess in bed (there is not enough tequila in this world to obliterate that conversation), and many more that I’ve successfully repressed. Thanks be to Cuervo.
Even though my sister and I are old and mature enough to handle these discussions, it’s still pretty uncool for our parents to bag on each other like that. It makes having a functional relationship with both of them really difficult– not just because I’m hearing things I could have gone my entire life without needing to know, but because that kind of behavior is incredibly juvenile and it’s hard to respect people to engage in it. Even–no, make that especially– when it’s your parents. Resist the temptation and don’t go there.
I don’t know that I can say that these suggestions are foolproof, much less guaranteed to ensure that your kids aren’t going to be royally screwed up when they finally reach adulthood. Hell, my parents made a number of huge mistakes (see above, plus many more that I didn’t mention), and my sister and I turned out to be more or less functional adults (her more, me less). At the same time, though, I maintain that my life would have been a lot easier– and I would have needed waaaaaaay less therapy in my early twenties– if my parents had given these ideas some consideration.