REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from Florida Jewish News, September 2, 2005, p. 21, 23, 27
I never liked the term, “Blended families.” It reminded me of cake batter—sweet, maybe fun to snack on when no one was looking, but, frankly, not yet a cake. After all, which is better, the batter or the done cake? That term has the same uncomfortable feeling as “Reconstituted families.” Something like “reconstituted orange juice”—not quite the real thing. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.
There is a place for divorce. After trying to reconcile, trying to make amends, trying everything, the bottom line is that if the couple cannot get along, if there is neglect, abuse, or drug use, and counseling has been tried–with a highly qualified marriage and family therapist and it didn’t accomplish its goal, then divorce is an option. And when that option is selected, the individuals, once a couple, should be able to go their separate ways with their heads held high. They should not be condemned or looked down upon for choices that they could not help making. We, after all, don’t know what went on behind closed doors.
Assuming the divorce goes fairly smoothly, the individuals are not ostracized, and they eventually remarry, the most critical question is: What approach to the children will assure their best emotional and spiritual health? Or, in other words, what can you, the parents, do to assure that your new family will be unique, special, and wonderful for your child? That it will not be a mere blend, but a delicious cake? Not something reconstituted, but a tasty original? Here are four points for consideration:
- Don’t Fall Into The Guilt Trap By Innundating Your Child With Material Things.
The guilt trap is set to spring because you made the choice to divorce. And what does a parent do who feels guilty? Why, she or he bribes the child. (As if “stuff” could make up for the pain that may have preceded and followed the divorce.) You really don’t want to do this.
Emphasis on “things” teaches the child that when things go wrong, they shouldn’t deal with their emotions, talk it out, and find hobbies, interests or subjects they like at school to fill their heads and hearts. Rather, it is okay run away from reality.
You might ask, “What is the difference between burying oneself in hobbies or, for that matter, schoolwork, and material possessions?” A good question.
The answer is that interests of any kind represent a way for a person to exert some control over his or her environment. Projects, collections, sports, school subjects, reading, all represent a way to do something. This is particularly meaningful when one’s parents are divorced and a child feels powerless to make things right again.
Toys, games, expensive items, trips and the like not only do not give children this wonderful opportunity, but they also give the message that one can throw money at a problem to make it go away. It doesn’t work, as you and I know from our experience, so why teach it to children? Later on, when they find this out, the bubble will burst. What’s more, as adults, they will not know what else to do to feel better and will run after more and more material things in a vain attempt to replicate the temporary relief and distraction they found as children.
Parents frequently give their children these material things instead of giving of themselves. They feel badly that there was fighting in the house which caused the child fear, then a split which caused the child loneliness, but what do they do? They substitute the “stuff” for the one thing the child needs most, which is time and constructive attention from the parent.
- Failure To Discipline Is A Form Of Child Abuse.
Don’t overlook bad behavior because you’re too tired, distracted, or guilty. Never, ever overlook bad behavior in your child, no matter how that child has suffered with the divorce and remarriage. Parents mistakenly think, “My child has suffered so much; I’m not going to perpetrate any more of it.” That’s good thinking. Then they fail to discipline. That’s bad thinking. Undisciplined children, as adults, will, indeed, suffer all over again.
When they are not disciplined, children learn that they can get away with misbehavior, and they learn to play the victim game. That is, as they grow up, they will come to believe that if they present themselves as “poor me,” other people will feel sorry for them and let them get away with hurting those very people. The truth is quite different: Sooner or later, those hurt people will put a stop to that behavior. The undisciplined people, now adults, will be confused, hurt, and—worst of all—unable to cope because they never learned how. Consider exchanging the long term pain of an undisciplined life for the temporary and relatively mild pain of present punishment.
- Don’t Speak Badly About Your Ex No Matter How Angry You Are.
Every child needs two parents. Every child suffers an existential loneliness when one is missing. That one is not replaceable. Children who hear negative things about the other parent frequently yearn for that parent so much that they identify with him or her. The child then takes on all the unpleasant characteristics of the other parent that you don’t like!
Alternatively, you may succeed in turning your child away from your ex, but your child may feel damaged himself. Children cannot help but identify with their parents so that if they come to think of their parent as “bad,” they must also think of themselves as bad.
Another unwanted outcome is that children may come to believe that marriage doesn’t work and find it difficult to form relationships themselves. Any of these results are undesirable for children. The simple truth is that children generally do benefit from some aspect of the other parent’s personality, so the best approach is to not speak ill of him or her. What if that ex is, indeed, a no-good-nick—a gambler, a persistent drunk, or an unreformed abuser—for example?
The answer is to tell the truth, but tell it with kindness. Say to your child, “Your mom has a problem and I’ve been unable to help her, unfortunately.” But I invoke a word of caution here: I’ve heard many awful stories from one spouse about another only to find that, upon meeting the other spouse, that he or she leveled similar stories about the first one. I’ve learned from this to be my own judge, and generally speaking, I find there are elements of truth in both sets of stories. So if you must explain—with kindness—your ex as being somehow “sick” or “having a problem” be sure you examine yourself first to make sure your motives are pure and your representation of your ex is true. Otherwise, you’re just brainwashing your child.
- Allow Your New Spouse To Occupy The Proper Place In Your Child’s Heart.
Nobody replaces a parent. Surely, then, if you re-marry, as much as you think your new spouse is superior to your former one, your child doesn’t. Won’t. Can’t. In fact, even if your child agrees that his/her other biological parent was terrible (let’s say he was abusive, or an alcoholic, or both), he will still feel a sense of loss and grief.
After all, he has suffered a deep loss: the loss of the parent he never had. During all the time you and your spouse were together, your child could keep hope alive that something would change, something would get better. Now, it’s really over, and it’s so sad. So give your child time to grieve this big loss.
If your new spouse cannot—and should not—replace your ex in your child’s eyes, just what should be the nature of this new relationship? Let’s look at the answer on two fronts: discipline and friendship.
To the child, when a step-parent exercises discipline in the same way that you would, it will feel as though that step-parent is muscling in on the personal and private territory where a parent belongs. The child’s thinking process will be something like, “Who is he to do that to me?” Thus, it is up to you to make the rules of the house. However, you may delegate authority to your new spouse in the same way you would to a babysitter. For example, you should speak to the child in front of the step-parent, saying, “David, your bedtime is 8:00 PM. I’m going out for the evening, and I’m leaving Harvey (step-parent) in charge. I expect you to listen to him as you listen to me.” This is pretty much the same as you’d do to delegate authority to a babysitter.
Here’s where the second part of the formula comes in. From Harvey’s point of view, friendship should be the goal, and any discipline that can be reached through friendship is best. Here’s why: In the normal development of a child, a baby enters the family and is given an enormous amount of love with a very minimal amount of discipline. An infant is pretty much fed on demand for a while and all needs are met quickly. Therefore, that infant develops a bond with the parents. As the baby gets older, the wise parent cashes in on that bond to get cooperation and does the least necessary amount of punishment to achieve results. Children who feel loved will do anything to get their parents’ praise.
Sure, some punishment is always necessary, but, as I said, the parent learns what is the least severe punishment necessary to get the results. Thus, my daughter only has to look sternly at her two-year old, still speaking in a pleasant, calm voice to get great results. That is the severest punishment he has ever received and he’s a wonderfully behaved child.
The bottom line is that the foundation of successful parental discipline is love. The school situation is not much different. Children will respond very poorly to an autocratic teacher. True, they may toe the line out of fear, but they will not perform well and will flout authority behind the teacher’s back. On the other hand, a teacher who they deem to be “fair” will get the maximum effort out of those children. To those students, a “fair” teacher develops a relationship with the children, treating them with respect, rather than pulling rank on them.
These, then, are the lessons the step-parent can incorporate into forging a new relationship with your child:
- Treat the child with respect.
- Be kindly, warm, and friendly but not overbearing in your interactions.
- Show him/her interest but allow privacy.
- Allow the child’s demeanor to guide you as to how fast or slow the relationship should warm up.
- Only give discipline that was established by the biological parent.
- Carry out the rules with a pleasant demeanor; don’t get angry.
- No matter how rebellious the child might be, remember there is real pain underneath the behavior. Address the person in pain; don’t act as if the behavior is the whole person.
- Make time for fun as a family.
These rules should certainly be true for the biological parent as well.
Let your new marriage be a taste of fresh, squeezed juice for your child—something new, authentic, sweet, nutritious, and delicious.