Parenting is all about setting examples and trying to impart life lessons onto our children. Parents teach their children everything from how to communicate, walk, socialize, dress, complete self-care tasks, drive, and so much more. As parents, our goal is to produce kids who are happy, healthy, and will be capable of becoming independent and productive adults.
One of the countless lessons we become responsible for teaching our kids is how to succeed in relationships. Kids are always in life’s classroom, whether we are engaged in directly teaching them about something or through observing everything around them. When it comes to relationships, they will go into the world knowing either what we have told them or what we have modeled to them in our own relationships.
The thought of what my children were learning about relationships during my marriage to their father terrified me and served as a top reason for why I sought a divorce from my former husband. I didn’t want to imagine that my children would grow to think of our dysfunctional relationship as “normal” or acceptable. I didn’t want my son to become a husband who refused to participate in his family, and I feared for my daughter to allow a man to take advantage of or mistreat her. I needed to not only save myself from a bad marriage but also give them a fighting chance to know and want better!
My children are products of divorced parents, but the last thing I want for them is to endure divorces of their own. I feel that evacuating a tumultuous and unhappy marriage was the first lesson I passed to them in Relationships 101, but that’s only the beginning of what I strive to educate them about in hopes of making them divorce-proof.
Examples of relationships, both good and bad, are everywhere! If not our own relationship, we can reference the way people we know interact with one another or discuss the relationships we observe in TV and movies. We can encourage relationship awareness and dialogue through little comments such as “wow, that wasn’t very nice for her to treat him like that” or “what would be a better way to show her he’s angry than that?”
Although I prefer not to overload my kids with TMI about my relationship with their dad and I go out of my way not to bash him in any way, I attempt to be as transparent as I can about mistakes made that contributed to the downfall of our marriage. I own regrets that I have about my own behavior and discuss with them, to the extent we’re all comfortable, about the necessity of continuing to work hard on a marriage, the importance of marriage to be a partnership, and much more.
Children will usually follow the examples set by their parents. We either tend to mimic the behaviors we are familiar with or have seen acted out, or (some of us) will use those examples as a reference of what not to do. Some who have grown up in broken homes or with parents who did not get along are leery of relationships because they do not want the same for themselves, but most kids will reenact what they witnessed during childhood with little conscious thought about it.
So, if our kids are going to do as we’ve shown them, we better give them a good show! If we form other relationships post-divorce, let our kids see us be selective about our partners, exercise good traits of a partner (e.g. being a good communicator, willing to work together, practicing forgiveness) and not regrettable ones (losing our identity in a partner, being a doormat, accepting poor treatment, and many others). Even if they don’t have the opportunity to witness us in romantic relationships, we can demonstrate positive reciprocal engagement in our friendships, attitudes toward relationship behaviors, and the values we try to impart on them.
Kids won’t know right from wrong in relationships without either experiencing that for themselves or having both the good and bad pointed out to them. We can help kids start to figure out the way in how we interact with them and others. Do we let others take advantage of us, manipulate us, treat us rudely, or turn us into the worst versions of ourselves? Do we command respect, choose companions who elevate rather than bring us down, and surround ourselves with people who value us? The behavior we tolerate from others dictates the treatment we can expect to receive; therefore, if we don’t set the standards, who will?
Divorce prevention begins with choosing the right relationships and working hard to make them last.
Dating is when kids will begin to apply everything they’ve internalized about relationships for practical purposes. Dating is when they will act out what we have taught them and figure out for themselves who they are attracted to and what they need and want from a relationship. Failure is to be expected in dating. Not every couple is a match, and we often have no idea what works for us until we try it! They shouldn’t be in any hurry to get serious with anyone too quickly because they have so much to learn about life and themselves, and a lot of life to live before making a commitment.
Matters of the heart and anything involving more than one person can be extremely complicated! We should never expect relationships to just “magically” work. For a relationship to work, both partners must be committed to compromise, communication, respect, and working through the tough times.
We can’t throw in the towel every time something becomes challenging, and that includes relationships. We need to prepare our kids to be ready to fight and work hard to hold on to marriage. It won’t always be wine and roses, so we have to be ready to employ patience, forgiveness, talking it out, and even counseling to preserve it.
If relationships are not working, what should they do?
So, not only will dating be a trial and error exercise to hone relationship skills and develop a list of desired qualities in a partner, but it is the field on which kids will also learn from mistakes and endure their first taste of heartbreak. Break-ups are part of dating, and kids need to know how to break-up just as they need to know how to ask someone out.
My 20-year-old stepson just broke up with his girlfriend of a year. They had a long-distance relationship, and I had my doubts that they would carry on much longer because they seem to be on very different paths in life. A year is a long time to a teen or young adult, so understandably there were some tears and hard feelings. This failed relationship served an important purpose to teach both of them a few more points of what they do and do not want in a partner and became a lesson in breaking up with love and respect.
I regret that he was not the most sensitive about how he ended the relationship. I think the time and distance between them prompted him to see the end of their coupling before she did. By the time they saw each other over the holiday break, he had already processed through their split and was healing from the inevitable. He abruptly announced his wishes, which blindsided her. I cringed at the way he cut ties, which resulted in a family discussion about what happened.
A big brother’s break-up fumble became an object lesson in many topics including the fact that not everyone is meant to be together forever, and that’s okay. Dating is relationship boot camp. It’s the place in which we all flirt, partner up, have disagreements, make-up, and potentially break-up over and over again until we learn, improve, and get it right!
Perhaps, one of the most important lessons everyone should know about the end of relationships is that, as much as they may hurt, they are not the end! My divorce stands as an example to my kids that a painful failed marriage can become a fresh start for new and better things. My divorce brought me to my knees; but, most importantly, I got back up, I fought through adversity, and I overcame the destruction! If I can do it, so can they!
Although divorce is a painful experience we all hope our children can avoid, we can set them up for relationship success through the continuous messages and examples we share with them every day of their childhood. We can teach them to be the best partners possible, to choose the best partners for themselves, and how to maintain a good relationship. They also need to know, however, that some relationships are not meant to last and there are preferred ways to end partnerships that are not healthy for us.
Thanks to committed parents, kids can have the advantage of being prepared to form healthy and satisfying relationships of their own!
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