When I divorced, one of my biggest fears was that my kids would make the same “mistakes” their father and I did during our marriage. And by mistakes, I mean showing disrespect to one another, ourselves, and taking each other for granted. Of course, how these broad behaviors manifest in every relationship varies, but the idea is the same: children learn by example.
In the landmark study, “Children of divorce: recent findings regarding long-term effects and recent studies of joint and sole custody,” researchers J.S. Wallerstein and J.R. Johnston found that divorce can have a long-lasting effect on children. What kids in their formative years see or hear during the period their parents’ marriage is failing can shape the view they have of themselves and society. Although the study does conclude a reestablishment of the family unit or a successful remarriage may improve both the parents’ and children’s quality of life, the results are troubling.
Apart from saying to kids, “Do as I say, not as I do,” which, as any parent knows is not the most effective child-rearing strategy, how do divorced parents, including myself, keep little ones, and not so little ones, from following in the footsteps we sometimes wish we didn’t take? I offer three suggestions, which I use in my home.
If you’re like me, over the years, there’s probably been plenty you wished your children didn’t see or hear. But you know what? There’s no going back. You can’t suck the words in or change how a situation played out, despite your best intentions. Worrying about it will only make the present unbearable and keep you stuck. There is something you can do, though, and that is own your mistakes, both to yourself and your kids. And don’t wait for your children to bring up what a hypocrite they think you are either, although they are known to do that as soon as your words don’t match your actions (again, why “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work). A simple, “I shouldn’t have said or done that” is an easy way to start, followed by a “Here’s why I shouldn’t have said or done that” as well. You’re not perfect, and if you admit to that fact, you will respect yourself more and so will your kids. We all screw up sometimes.
As much as our kids see themselves in us, it’s important to remind them they are not us. Whenever my children have complained about the custody arrangement their father and I share or a particular situation they don’t like and say isn’t fair, I remind them they can do things differently with their kids when they are parents. It can be scary for children to feel they have no control over some of the decisions being made for them, especially if it involves not seeing one of their parents when they want. What they can look forward to, however, is a time when they will be in charge of their family and lives. When they are adults, they can make the choices they want. Life won’t have to be this way.
It’s never too late to change your ways. If you believe you haven’t been functioning at your best or parenting in the way you had hoped, work on it. We can always do better than we are right now. I used to be a very nervous person. I was reactive when my day didn’t go according to plan, even when it shouldn’t have mattered. Most incidents are just not worth the attention we give them once we look back. A broken glass? Yeah, it’s annoying to vacuum the kitchen, but we can replace that glass. A minor car accident where no one is hurt? Costly and aggravating for sure but that’s why we have insurance. A divorce? Lots of trouble, sadness, and expense but hope for a happier existence is a much more powerful prospect. Hindsight is a valuable tool, one we can use for more than chastising ourselves. It can also be instructional. And learning, wanting to improve personally, is an example any parent should be proud to teach their children, even if the impetus for first doing so was our divorce.
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