Of all the parenting topics I cover, this one is central to why we needed to get this co-parenting thing right. I refused to let Ian be a casualty of my choices. And I have to say, I think both Bob and I tackled the subjects of limits, responsibility, and discipline beautifully.
One of the saddest things I’ve witnessed in observing other divorce situations is the inability of divorced couples to effectively discipline their children and teach them how to make good life choices. The divorced parent becomes so fearful of the possibility that their child will reject them that they choose not to engage in any conversations that might jeopardize their relationship. I have seen it so many times. Fathers with limited visitation who cannot fathom making even one precious moment unhappy with their children during the short hours they spend to have it taken up by confrontations of any kind. Mothers who buy their kids everything they ask for so that the children don’t consider whether they may have more material rewards if they lived with Dad. On and on it goes. The child isn’t given any responsibilities and is never told no. They are constantly showered with compliments on how great and beautiful they are and never denied anything. From having no household chores to never living without something because “mom said so”, the kids of divorced parents are running the show. No wonder we now have the “me” generation.
You may be thinking, “So what if everyone’s happy all the time?” Is it so bad to have only positive interactions with your child? Frankly, YES! First of all, if you don’t teach your children about things like washing the dishes and doing laundry, who do you think is going to do that? Or are you planning to supply your child with a staff of household servants after they move out? Or maybe you’re ok with them wallowing in filth later on because they never learn the value of basic home cleanliness and how it can affect their physical and mental health. Could you be unwittingly raising a future hoarder to be featured on the cable series Hoarders, Buried Alive? Maybe you too were raised without being expected to help around the house and think this is just fine. Afterall, look at you. You turned out fine. But I bet if you think about it, you had more responsibilities than you are willing to admit since it challenges your current course of action.
But this is about so much more than learning how to clean the house. What happens to a person who is never told no, denied anything, or challenged on their thinking? You got it! They grow up to be spoiled, self-serving narcissist. Even if they somehow escape their values descending into complete self-absorption, they will be ill equipped to deal with the real world where they will most certainly be told no by someone. There will eventually be someone who disagrees with them or denies them something they desperately want. And you have failed to prepare them for this event. They will be devastated and have no idea how to respond appropriately and productively to failure, going without, or having to think of others first.
So if you think the above is a lot of preaching from me without a lot of evidence that it doesn’t have to be this way, I’ll share with you our experience. You might recall in my earlier blog posts I mentioned that it will be much easier to effectively co-parent if both parents share foundational values. This is probably more important in the areas of discipline, setting limits, and teaching responsibility than any other.
Remember when you first learned you were going to be a parent? If you’re like me, you probably were profoundly struck simultaneously with fear and excitement at the prospect that you would be raising a human being that with God’s grace would someday positively influence humanity. Sure you may have dreamed of them growing up to be famous or rich or beautiful. But I doubt anyone hopes their child grows up to be a self-absorbed asshole. So we must be careful not to raise one. In fact we need to live in fear that we may very well do that if we don’t take responsibility ourselves for ensuring that doesn’t happen. Again, if you don’t do it, are you expecting someone else will? Why the hell are they going to do your job for you? This is the cornerstone of parenting. Beyond the contribution of your DNA, this is your next most important responsibility. And I take it VERY SERIOUSLY.
When Bob and I divorced, I was fortunate enough to know that we shared very similar core values. Of course there are nuances. Otherwise, we might have never gotten divorced at all. But we both took and still take the responsibility of parenting very seriously and personally. We both realize that while we want our child to like us, liking us is not more likely because we give him everything he wants. We accept that it is our responsibility to teach Ian kindness, generosity, and responsibility as well as providing him opportunities to succeed in life. However, I have known many people who were seemingly given every opportunity to succeed by way of paid college tuition and financial assistance of all sorts who still fell flat on their face precisely because it was given to them. I know multimillionaires whose children seem to have no idea what it means to be responsible or make good life choices.
I grew up in a home where my dad had a convenient excuse to give me when he and mom didn’t want me to have something. “We can’t afford it,” he’d say. It’s a perfect alibi. Growing up I always said to myself that when I had kids, I didn’t want to have to tell them they couldn’t have something because “we couldn’t afford it”. So I set out to make sure that wasn’t going to be the case only to find out that it is much easier to say, We can’t afford it” than it is to teach some more difficult life lesson to our child such as you can’t have it because it is bad for you. If you simply say you can’t afford it, that pretty much shuts down all debate. So in one sense, it’s brilliant because the end is the same and maybe the child is less distressed than if you tell them they can’t have something because you think it is too extravagant. Aren’t they important enough for you to part with your precious money over? Let the parental guilt trip begin. Stop with the need to explain. Revert to what our parents did or our grandparents before them. They said, “No.” The end. If you dared to ask why, you got the ever popular “because I said so”. And if you dared challenge this reasoning, you might well have ended up grounded or worse yet slapped, spanked, or even beaten. What is this obsessive compulsion to over-explain our parental logic to our children? Give it up. Because they ARE children, they cannot be expected to understand.
Now that I’ve laid down the hardline, I will dial back a bit to the reality of my personal approach which I think in the majority of situations worked. I said no when I thought something was not in my child’s best interest AND I offered my reasoning for this in simple matter-of-fact terms. While I didn’t allow Ian to debate me on my decision, I did listen to what he had to say in response as an opportunity to confirm whether or not he understood my rationale – even if he didn’t agree with it. And therein lies the difference. I was NOT focused on whether or not my child agreed with me. I was most concerned with his wellbeing and conveying to him that regardless of anything else, my priority had to be to protect him from harm of any kind. That was my #1 job even when it made me unpopular with him. It’s the risk I had to take. And I knew it’s what Ian both wanted and expected from me too. All our kids us to protect them. And this requires setting limits. So I sat limits and stuck to them and I shared those limits with Bob. We would sometime negotiate on the finer details such as video game ratings or curfews. And we didn’t agree on all these details either. But our foundation was the same. First priority – protect Ian from harm – physical, mental, and emotional.
Here’s another problem I see with the idea of never having a negative experience with your child. What happens when they eventually have that imperfect day? Are they going to be equipped to handle it or are they going to shatter into a million pieces and be unable to recover or learn from the experience? We must teach our kids how to deal with disappointment and rejection or it will be a shock that will potentially devastate them when you are not around to catch them as they fall back to Earth from the high perch above the rest of the universe. Ian and I most certainly had our negative days. Some because he pushed it and some because maybe I had a bad day to work, was too exhausted to think straight or was PMSing. But these were invaluable exercises in communication, problem-solving, self-control and compromise for Ian. Sure they also offered these benefits to me as well. But this was his first rodeo and I was the clown protecting him from being trampled by the bull.
But what do you do when you and your child simply can’t get to common ground? When you’re still married to the other parent, you can call them in for reinforcement. But what about when you’re divorced? Can you still do that? You can but you have to be very secure in your relationship with the ex. Calling in the other parent for reinforcement isn’t a workable plan if they are going to use the event against you either to badmouth you to the child or to build a case that you are an unfit parent. Unfortunately, I know for many divorced parents this is the reality. But for others, its simply a fear, a personal insecurity. If your spouse has not brought legal action against you seeking to reduce your parenting time or interaction with them, I implore to partner with them in matters of discipline. After all, I’m pretty sure they don’t want to spend their days with an asshole of their own making either. So herein lay an opportunity to find common ground – a precious commodity among divorced co-parents.
There was a time during Ian’s middleschool years where he and I had the most trouble communicating. I think Ian was sure he was being judged by everyone including me all the time. He, like any other pre-teen, lacked confidence and at the same time felt compelled to wield control over something, anything, even if that was a heated conversation with mom. Now I’m going to say something I’m sure some of you will hate me for. But it’s what I believe based on my own personal feelings and observations. Children fear dad more than mom… at least in a physical harm sense that is. Sure, mom can make you feel like a piece of shit in words, but you won’t bleed or lose a limb from it. So the pain she can inflict just doesn’t carry the same fear factor as the potential damage dad can do with that extra weight and muscle to throw at you. Even if dad has never touched you. I know this because I felt this way. My dad had never laid a finger on me but at one point during my teens, I pushed him too hard and he grabbed both of my arms and shook me. It scared the hell out of me, not because it hurt but because it reminded me that he had the capacity to hurt me if he so chose to. With that, my human survival instinct kicked in and forced me to shut my smart mouth. I’m sure there are exceptions where the mom is more physically intimidating than the dad. But I’d venture to say that with dad’s deeper voice and larger stature, most kids can’t battle the human instinct to protect themselves from physical harm by acquiescing to the one that is physically superior to them.
Anyway, after arguing with Ian for several hours about helping out around the house and him doing everything in his power to fight me on the point, I had had enough. We were getting nowhere. I don’t really remember the details of our actual argument. But I do remember feeling like we had devolved into a circular conversation that was simply not going to resolve without a radical change in strategy. So I called Bob and asked if he would talk to Ian. Bob of course didn’t hesitate and came over to my house immediately. He laid it on the line with Ian and told him he was not to talk to me in the tone and manner he was. He reinforced my points telling Ian that mom was right and that he needed to do what I said. In short, Bob was being a good father. I don’t really get why this was so effective. Maybe it had nothing to do with the male versus female presence at all. Maybe it was simply the fact that bringing the other parent in tipped the opinion scale. Once Ian saw that Bob and I were on the same side, he realized he was outnumbered and was not going to win this one. So he conceded and life returned to normal for everyone. Yea for us. We didn’t raise an asshole!