Ah, yes, the children.
I’ve been dreading this entry, the third in the series of Divorce Disaster Preparedness.
I’ve been dreading it because everyone, including me, has pretty strong (and generally self-serving) opinions about this topic. I’ve been dreading it because I figure that my own kids will read it and think I’m on crack. I’ve been dreading it because my mom will read it and probably send me an article just to be funny. I’m dreading it because there is so much self-righteous, biased, insane, pompous, sloppy, beside-the-point, pontificating and pre-determined dreck, prattle and blather masquerading as informed advice on divorce and children already. (My favorites are accompanied by pictures of pouting children ripping a picture of mommy and daddy in two.) But I said that I’d do it, so let me get some of the preliminaries out of the way. First, the disclaimers. This entry is —
Okay, now that we have that out of the way, what do you do about the kids? Tough question, but I think that it comes down to minimizing the damage and helping kids hold onto what will be important in the long term, which is their relationships. You see, the largest pool of experience that I have with the kids of divorce are when they get to college. By then, their attitudes and perspectives seem to have changed quite a bit from when they were younger. Some are scarred, but many also tell me that, although it was a difficult time, they and their parents are better off with the life and family they now have. Most have adjusted, and if they are bitter about anything, it’s about the way that things were, or have been, handled.
What this tells me is that for kids who go through a divorce, the way that this experience works itself out is largely the function of how the adults around the children handle the situation. It also tells me the experience is in the end, like everything else, what you make of it in time and do with it in the narrative of your life. So, if you’re facing friends with kids in a divorce, and if you want to do more good than harm. This is what I would tell you:
1: The big DON’T: DON’T make it all about the divorce. The main thing to remember is: although this is the defining moment of these kids’ lives right now, it doesn’t have to be the defining moment of their life. The parents have their own problems and instabilities. In all honesty, they aren’t in the best position to do anything more than not make things worse (which they probably won’t do). It only takes a person or two to help kids get through this storm without being marooned. So if you want to be one of those people:
a) DON’T make it all about you and the divorce.
The kids have enough on their plate without having to act, be, or say things to shore up your own sense of self, insecurities, ideas about family and marriage, or your desire to be a wise elder. This is not time to try to transform yourself into Obi Wan Kanobi, Dr. Phil, or Oprah.
It’s also not the time to treat the kids like lepers. When I divorced, some people would only allow my kids to play with their kids at their own “intact” home. I remember very fondly when, early on, the parents of Nils’ friend Lindsey allowed her to come over and play with Nils, even while (gasp) Susan was there. I will always be grateful to them. I know that this was an issue for some people, because when Susan and I were bringing Lindsey to the house Nils leaned over in the back seat. “Don’t worry,” he said reassuringly, “She’s experienced with children.”
Other people will prod kids for stories of how ruined their lives are, and say or do things that are obviously meant to highlight the differences between their own “okay” family and the not-okay divorcing family. I don’t think they do it maliciously, I just think they are looking for validation of their own family health. But looking for your validation from kids whose family is in the middle of a divorce is really kinda sick. You might as well make them stand at your door and shout “Unclean! Unclean!” before entering your home.
b) DON’T make it all about them and the divorce.
Kids whose parents are going through a divorce are hurting, but they don’t have to be treated like the walking wounded. They’re still kids, with all the uncertainty, emotional instability, narcissism, spontaneity, conniving, joy, and occasional sweetness that endears them to us all. They are bound to be all over the place around their natural center of gravity in emotionally tough times. But you don’t need to fret over and analyze every emotion and gesture: it makes them seem like lab rats.
Nor does every shift in emotion or questionable action portend some kind of disaster. Some adults will react with swift and sure overkill to practically every little thing and impute enough melodrama and sentimentality to fill a Hallmark for several years. The five year-old boy who prefers to sit alone offers opportunities to muse on the heart-wrenching sorrow of watching a child brood his way into becoming an emotionally detached axe murderer. A bit too much eye makeup on a thirteen year-old becomes a sure portend that she’s looking for male affirmation in all the wrong ways and is doomed to become a teenage pregnant dropout. Seriously.
I guess that I’m arguing for a kind of attentive moderation, and for not pulling the reins too tight. Kids should have a chance to escape the pressure to be okay or damaged (depending on the expectation of the audience) in order to have a bit of fun, have a bad day, or have friends. They have enough of that at their parents’ homes.
On the other hand, some kids find that having parents in a divorce gives them license for all kinds of behavior that wouldn’t be otherwise excused. At school, in your home, or with yourself, you can acknowledge their personal difficulties while still letting them know that some things are not okay and that other people’s problems do not have to become their own. This may be awkward at times, because kids in a divorce (like in other difficult situations) have to grow up in some ways more quickly than they, or we, would like them to. But by now these kids have probably seen or heard more than you want to know, and they often know a great deal more than they let on. You have to help them have the space to be a child productively, but you also have to help them face the reality of their situation without becoming destructive to themselves and their other relationships.
The big DO: Make it about affirming and maintaining long-term relationships.
Kids need, even in the best of times, adults to provide secure and stable relationships. Parents provide their most influential and important relationship model, and when it goes bad or down the tube it calls a lot about relationships into question. One of the most important ways that you can help is by being one of the positive relationships that makes it through this time, and by affirming the long-term relationships that should endure through this period. This certainly includes their relationships with the individual parents and their family members, and it potentially includes step-parents and newly constituted family members.
DO affirm your relationship with THEM.
You can’t change their circumstances. You can’t make their dad or mom stop beating up on each other in court. You can’t make grandpa stop pouring fuel on the fire. You can’t do much about any of those things. But what you can do is, in words and actions, make sure that you let the kid know that you have, and value, a relationship with them. Care about them: not because they are some kind of poster child, not because it’s an opportunity for ministry, and not because you have to, but because you have, and want to continue, a relationship with them. For my own kids, my parents and my brother’s family were that way, and we fought several court battles to make sure that they could continue to see and spend time with each other. We saw that they very much loved the kids themselves, and that this mattered deeply to the kids, and to us.
DO affirm, respect, and nurture their relationships with others.
Unlike you, kids shouldn’t really get to pick sides. Unlike you, they do have loyalties that they can’t–and shouldn’t — really choose between. Sometimes they do pick sides, and sometimes they are encouraged or even forced into doing so. It’s nearly always does disastrous long-term damage to themselves and others.
One way of helping kids not do this, and for you to not contribute to their problems, is to affirm their relationships with others, even people on the other side. It’s good for them to know that they don’t have to stop loving their mom, or grandpa, or aunt, or cousins, or even that two-timing son-of-a-bitch to love you or to love the parent you are closest to. That doesn’t mean that you have to cover up the parents’ problems. Believe me, the kids know their parents’ faults. But it’s probably better, when you have to acknowledge these faults, that you do so honesty and in a way that lets the kids know that, despite the fact that you have problems with their parents, everyone accepts that they love their parents and isn’t asking them to do otherwise. You can’t count on the parents to do it.
As a parent who was in a doozy of a divorce, I know that the parents, while in the thick of it, are just not equipped to do this well. We tried, but didn’t always succeed. At times when your ex-step-father makes good on his threat to drive you into financial ruin, or the ex serves you with surprise papers announcing she is taking the kids off to an island where you won’t get to see them except for a few times a year (and does it while the kids have just arrived at your home to spend some time with you), it’s difficult — no, impossible — to be affirming. But blowing up only leaves the kids scared, angry, and feeling even more unfairly responsible. But you, dear friends, are not the parents. You can, and should, better than the parents in these times. You must. With luck, with time, and with some steady affirmation everyone might just make it through.
The same goes for when step-parents and step-siblings enter the picture. In the worst of cases, blended families stay separated into “my” and “your” contingents. In the best of cases, a genuine family is formed. The latter goal isn’t easy to achieve, and especially when other people or family members take the former approach. Take the latter. One of the things I remember fondly is that Susan’s niece, Kristy, and her kids called me “uncle Eric” the first time I met them. The first time. I remember Susan’s sister, Rusty, buying Nils and Erika Christmas presents the first year. I remember my niece, Heather, waiting at the window the first time Susan and I came over with a picture of us that said “I think you’ll be great together.” I remember when my mom and aunt raced around to put together a household of towels, kitchen stuff, clothes, furniture, and high chairs when my step-daughter Jody suddenly fled a bad marriage and arrived in Tacoma with practically nothing but three small children and an empty diaper bag. I remember when Susan was having a very hard time with her family and my dad said, “You can be a member of our family” and he and my mom came to her mother’s funeral and stood up for her. Such acknowledgements go a long, long way.
Getting through a divorce is not easy, or swift, or guaranteed to work out for anyone. Neither is marriage. But in the end, it’s the relationships that matter. How we help each other build them up, take them down, or rebuilt new ones largely determines their lasting impact, and helping each other do this honestly, authentically, and compassionately is by far the best way. We are resilient creatures, and children necessarily so. From what I have seen, even those that have gone through a terribly difficult divorce can not just come through it, but become wonderful adults if only they have someone — sometimes just one person — who is there, genuinely, for them, at critical times. So when faced with friends, family, or kids going through a divorce, the emperor Augustus’ motto, festina lente (“make haste slowly”) rings true for those who want to be around for the long haul.