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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Truth or Dare

Parents of 2 home children feel stuck sometimes when their child starts a sentence with "but at Mommy's house...." or "but at Daddy's house...." Parents know that sometimes it is manipulation because the child doesn't like the answer they are getting! And they also know, or at least strongly suspect, that the child at times is making something up on the spot to either get out of trouble, or distract a parent from an action the child doesn't like. When a parent knows the child is telling the truth and knows the rules are just different in the two homes, it is pretty easy to deal with. But when a parent knows that what is being reported is probably not true, they wonder how to handle it. One effective way to proceed is to check it out with the other parent, but not immediately! That may be just the distraction your child is hoping for. The best thing in the heat of the moment is to stay focused on the child and continue down the path you were on. File it away for later as something to discuss with your co-parent.

So let's say you stick to your guns and keep the focus on the issue at hand and you get the kids to bed. Once they are down for the night, and you get a cup of tea, you sit down at the computer and email your co-parent. The response you get back makes it clear that either your child fabricated a tall tale or your co-parent has. In this situation, you probably want to give your co-parent the benefit of the doubt. The moral development of children can be a great mystery in just about any family situation, but the issue of honesty tends to be a particular challenge for children living between 2 homes.

This developmental issue in and of itself makes a good case for the critical importance of a good-enough co-parenting relationship between the parents/important adults responsible for 2 home kids. The more estranged the adults, the more likely it is that children will use that communication gap to manipulate the truth and their way out of uncomfortable situations in both homes. Parents sometimes contribute to or even cause the problem by being dishonest themselves about why they don't speak to the other parent. If you are a model of blame and rationalization when it comes to your co-parenting relationship, then you have set the tone for your children, and not in a helpful way.

Truth-telling takes courage, sometimes a lot of it. Most 2 home kids have seen eye-rolling, grimaces, and smirks when talking about the absent parent in the other parent's home. Or they may have heard sighs, grunts, and inappropriate adult communications about that parent. This leads them, too often, to feel like they need to hide any positive feelings they have for a parent when in the others' home. It will definitely have a negative impact on their self-esteem and their ability to trust the people closest to them. And it will shape the way they think about truth and honesty in relationships.

While children need and deserve to be protected from all the gory details of the divorce/separation/adult relationship, they also need and deserve honesty when it comes to both parent's acknowledgment of their own deficits in being an effective co-parent and doing so without the defenses of blame and rationalization. If you make a mistake, admit it and apologize or ask for forgiveness. Then work at doing better, don't just give lip service. An honest effort to do a better job at co-parenting goes a long way with 2 home kids working at learning how to go back and forth between 2 parents they love very much.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Look Both Ways Before You Cross the Street

Many parents feel that their number one job is to provide safe and secure environments in which their children can thrive. We choose the safest neighborhoods to live in that we can. We meet our children’s friends and their parents to ensure we feel comfortable with their ability to be a good influence and keep our children safe. We monitor both the quantity and quality of television/electronic media our children interact with on a daily basis. We keep our children close and slowly, carefully increase both the distance they can travel and the amount of time they can be away from us. And we teach our children to look both ways before they cross the street.

We want our children to be safe physically, mentally and emotionally. Parents do everything in their power to protect their children. And sometimes, no matter how good a job a parent has done with that, bad things happen to good people. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just the way it is sometimes. Children fall down and get hurt. Children get diagnosed with illness. Children get hurt by other people. Children end up in situations that are risky or dangerous and it’s not because they haven’t done everything we have taught them to do to stay safe. It’s because we cannot control everything and everybody. We cannot predict the intentions and motivations of other people our children encounter. We can only do our very best to safeguard our children.

Inevitably, our children will get hurt – physically, mentally, and emotionally – and we cannot prevent that. Not completely. And when they get hurt we second guess ourselves by asking what we did wrong or what our child did wrong. We try desperately to understand how this could have been prevented. We struggle to find some way to believe that we are not powerless sometimes to protect our children. This is a painful reality for a parent to really accept because it is frightening to feel that lack of power.

A young girl in our local community is missing. A registered sex offender has been arrested on suspicion of rape and murder. She went running in a busy community park after school during the afternoon. School dismissed at 2:30 pm. By 5:30 pm, her father was driving around the neighborhood looking for her because she was late getting home on her usual schedule and it was not like her to fail to communicate about that to her parents. Our local paper ran an editorial this morning titled “Teach your children well.” The editorial concludes with: “We still don’t know what happened in this case. But anyone can make a mistake and let her guard down. And, tragically, in the world in which we live, it only takes one mistake. Parents, teach your children well.”

Really?! A mistake?! How can this editorial board consider, even for a moment, that this young woman did something wrong? It’s an automatic, unthinking and defensive response of people who desperately want to believe that this could have been prevented if only the young girl had…done what? Not gone running as she had hundreds of other school day afternoons in that very park? Taken her cell phone and, what, made a phone call to 911 after the guy probably blind-sided her with a body slam to the ground which is what he did to a previous victim who escaped? The suggestion that this girl did anything wrong or that her parents failed her in any way is a tragedy. No doubt there are some things that could have led to a different outcome but those preventive solutions that are far too late for this family and have absolutely nothing to do with her. Some of the responsibility lies with the judicial and correctional systems. And, ultimately, the responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the brutal human being who hurt her.

Parents do the very best they can. Children do, too. The nature of being human is that we struggle sometimes with the best and worst in ourselves and in others. And sometimes, no matter how vigilant and positive and successful and careful we are, bad things happen to good people. When this happens, the only thing we can really do is reach out to each other for sustenance and support and healing. I strive to be the kind of parent, friend and community member who understands that sometimes there is no way to prevent the hurt that comes with just living life. I want to be someone who helps with the healing. And I hope that if I ever blame someone living life as thoughtfully and carefully as they possibly can for a horror that befalls them that is completely outside their ability to conceive let alone control, that someone gives me a great big smack on the head and says “knock it off you arrogant, insensitive moron.”