I’ve spent the last few days at Type-A West in Denver, Colorado, including being part of a panel discussion about Dad Influencers, along with long-time friend Eric Elkins and new friend Bolaji Oyejide. Ably moderated by Don Jackson, we ended up talking a lot more about fatherhood and the nuanced issue of appropriately sharing our experiences as fathers with our followers. Do you reveal all, or do you keep everyone at arm’s length?
Bolaji was all for opening up and being maximally transparent, while Eric and I represented more of the perspective that you should be careful because of privacy and because the online world is full of, well, odd individuals and you never really know how they’ll react or respond to something you’ve shared.
The question that most made me ponder, however, was a simple one: what advice would you give other parents?
For this post, however, I want to dig into a slightly different question, one that came up in discussion after discussion as I met up with divorcing, freshly divorced and newly single moms and dads. The question is:
What Advice Would You Give to Newly Single Parents?
In a lot of ways, it boils down to the essence of my own journey, a decade of being a single parent, starting with our intention of being 50/50 with our parenting time, but in reality sometimes having my children with me 60-75%, sometimes less than half-time, and now, having my youngest with me full time. It’s kind of like being a soldier: it’s really time in the trenches that gives you the experience to know how to handle good times and bad.
So I offer up three simple pieces of advice:
1. Shut Up And Listen
Perhaps the most basic of parenting strategies, we adults have a really bad habit of not listening to our children and just imparting our judgment or wisdom over them speaking to us, sharing or venting. I’m not great at this because like many men (I see it as more of a masculine trait) I’m a fixit guy. You have a problem, I’m going to start spinning off ideas about how to analyze it and solve it. Professionally that’s an extraordinarily useful trait, but interpersonally? Not so much.
It’s a great zen practice anyway; just stop talking. Your children want to share with you, they want your advice, and sometimes, they might just want your sympathy. So stop talking already, stop interrupting them, stop discounting or belittling what they say, stop being unsympathetic and just listen to them. Even if it takes a while for them to unwind or get to the point.
Just because you do this, doesn’t mean that they’ll thank you or even realize you’ve heard them. Case in point: My 13yo got in trouble at school last week. She got in the car in tears. I asked what happened and let her talk for a while, gradually telling the full story. I kept nodding, saying “Mmm hmm” and sharing that it sounded rough and that she seemed to have had a tough afternoon. Then I told her that she’d made a mistake in judgment and would have a consequence from me because of it, to which she then complained vehemently that I didn’t listen to her at all, I didn’t care about how hard a day it was for her, and I should stop yelling at her. I again let her just get that off her chest: It wasn’t me she was really yelling at, after all, but the situation she was complaining about. Okay. Hard in the moment, but you can do that too.
Which leads up to my second piece of parental advice, after having spend 20+ years being a parent:
2. Keep Your Sense of Humor
Turns out that there’s a lot about parenting that’s pretty wack. Times you do the right thing just to have your young person tell you what a beast, what a monster you are. That comes with the territory, whether the overt ways of a little one or the more nuanced — and often more hurtful — comments of a teenager who’s learning about emotions and how to hurt people with words. One of my classic interactions with my daughter is for her to yell at me that I’m “yelling at her” because she doesn’t like the words I say, regardless of my tone, volume and inflection.
To retain my sanity, I don’t argue, I sure as heck don’t smile (that’d be a huge mistake!), I just say “ah, okay” or similar and react as little as possible. Do I sometimes yell? Of course. I have emotions too, and can get frustrated, upset or wound up, but by seeking to remain calm and retaining my sense of humor about a situation, we can weather a lot of chaos and challenges without them escalating into major blowups.
And that’s really the purpose of your parental sense of humor anyway; to give you an alternative to getting really pissed off. I can remember years and years ago we were out at a restaurant with friends and their daughter knocked over a glass of water and broke the glass. I was so impressed by the dad’s reaction of staying calm and asking the most important question in all situations: “Are you okay?” Since then I have endeavored to be that dad too, so that when something untoward happens, my go-to response is calm humor. “Did that darn glass just fall down? They need to use glasses that aren’t so darn tired!” goes a long way to helping your child cope with accidents. Much better than “did you knock over your water again? You clumsy oaf!”
There’s also an inherent level of humor in the entire parenting journey anyway. I mean, let’s face it, if you watch other parents, they’re hilarious. Ever seen an adult pick up a baby and literally smell their butt to see if a diaper needs changing? That’s not bizarre and funny? Or what I like is the helicopter parents where you see them lugging the child’s backpack, musical instrument, and everything else, while the child dances along beside them, complaining about having to carry the book they’re reading for class or even busily tapping on their phone. That’s not teaching the kids anything useful, but it’s also funny. Yes, I sit and judge, knowing that my doing that is funny too.
I think the thing about keeping your sense of humor in parenting is that it helps you have perspective and not take it all so darn seriously. There are big, important situations to deal with — and they get more and more important as your children grow up — but keeping a bigger perspective and realizing that one incident does not a lifelong habit make is pretty darn important too, both for your child’s mental health and your own.
3. Honor and respect your co-parent
This might be the crux of the challenge of separating, divorcing and being co-parents; you have your own personal emotional journey that you’re on, whether you split amicably or are the most hateful, spitting kittens-in-the-alley couple of all time. Divorce sucks. It hurts. It’s a rejection from someone who knows you better than just about anyone else in the world. How can it not be incredibly difficult?
Unfortunately, that often comes out in judgment, criticism and outright hateful behavior towards your ex. And boy is that a terrible thing for children to experience, whether it’s a little one or a teen. They have their own incredibly difficult journey too and I highly encourage all parents to ensure they can have time away from both parents, time with an unbiased adult in whom they can confide. A therapist is trained to do just this, or a pastor, friend’s parent, or similar. The key: unbiased. Someone who can apply the two rules I’ve already shared without injecting subsequent criticism or snark about the other parent. So your new girlfriend, grandma or Uncle Charlie isn’t really going to cut it.
The great challenge is to acknowledge and validate your children’s complaints about your ex without actually agreeing with them. Remember; kids like to complain. It’s how they push out those unpleasant emotions and sometimes those emotions are things like disappointment, hurt, sadness, or a sense of failure. A lot more kids than you realize have an internal voice that tells them if they would have been a better child mommy and daddy would still be together. Oh, what a weight to bear! Think about it too much and it can break your heart. Makes ya a bit more sympathetic to their journey too, doesn’t it?
My advice to divorced or separated parents, therefore, is to be at least neutral towards the other parent, to bolster them in front of your children and to accept that solo parenting is a very different task than having two parents in the house to work together (or, in many cases, to just let the other parent deal with situations). It took me years to learn how to be a parent rather than just a drill instructor, and I wish I would have been better at learning how to be a full-rounded, sympathetic and [appropriately] strict single parent for my children’s sake.
I’ve seen moms and dads who are also “Disney Dads”, as they say; the children aren’t with them very often, and so it’s always a fun, candy-filled, shopping-filled, video game playing adventure when they are together. Mostly you see this with single dads, however, and 10x when it’s a very imbalanced parenting schedule. That’s because it’s crazy hard to establish a real relationship with a child when you see them one night/month or every other weekend. But that’s another discussion entirely.
Before this turns into an ebook, I just encourage you to keep these three pieces of advice in mind as you go through your single parenting day, whether it’s brand new to you or you’ve been doing it for years: shut up and listen to your children. Put down your phone, turn away from the TV, pay attention to them. Keep your sense of humor as they talk and share and live. Because, trust me, they definitely are keeping their sense of humor about you and what you’re doing day by day! And, finally, don’t bad-mouth your ex to your children or even to your friends if your children might overhear you. Hold them in high esteem in your heart, accept their failings and that they might struggle as parents, and things will inevitably move along a bit more smoothly.
I sure hope that helps. Thanks for reading this far.
Type-A panel photo credit: Jen Busfield.