Help for Children
Yesterday, I received an outstanding and very common question from Shawn and Colleen Woods. The Woods are a wonderful young couple who are working to build a better community for children in their neighborhood down in the Tampa, Florida area by facilitating Parenting with Dignity classes both in their neighborhood and in their workplace. Shawn is a former student and athlete that I worked with in the wonderful town of Waterville, Washington. Their simple question was, “Do you have any advice for step-parents on effective ways for them to combine efforts with the divorced mother/father; and in ways to deal with the “you’re not my father/mother” conversations with children?”
Some Shocking Advice
My advice here may shock some parents who feel that their situation is unique and different from that of what they feel are “normal” parents (meaning, I guess, that both parents are the natural father and mother of the children residing with them.) In other words, these step parents, who have chosen to divorce and then remarry and now have children living with them that are not their natural children, are wondering what special parenting skills I can offer to them.
My advice might shock some because it is pretty simple; “be the best parent that you can be using the SAME techniques that you would use if you had not been divorced!”
Now, stick with me and please do not become angered or put off by this advice which may seem insensitive, tactless, blunt, and over-simplified. Please listen to what I am saying to you if you are one of these parents. (Or listen carefully if you are like Shawn and Colleen and are facilitating a Parenting with Dignity class with parents who are now step parents.) Please do not think that I have gone off my rocker. I really cannot put his any other way. I simply cannot come up with some magic tools for parents of divorce. Effective parenting is effective parenting! It does not matter what the situation might be.
Now, let me acknowledge that being a divorced father of three children who do not live with you offers some special challenges; but the skills of being an effective parent do not change. It is still just as critical for you to make solid decisions about what your goal is in any action that you take with those children. It really does not matter whether you are a single parent or are a step parent. In those situations the concepts presented in Lessons #3 in our Parenting with Dignity are perhaps even more necessary to master. It might be even more important to be extremely clear about the precise goals for your actions.
If you apply our Rule #1 with step children it still works. “Tell them precisely what you want them to do! You must describe that desired conduct in behavioral terms that the child can understand. You must be able to explain clearly to the child precisely how their world will be better if they do as you ask.”
If you apply our Rule #2 with step children it still works. “Criticize the performance and not the person!” That is equally valuable with any children regardless of the relationship! That rule will work with employees at work and with spouses at home. T is a valid way to teach anyone.
If you apply our Rule #3 with step children it also works! “Repeat desired actions and beliefs to children!” If the children are not using what you have asked them to do after three requests, changing the words and the manner of delivery will increase the chances of getting he child to choose to act in the desired manner.
If you apply our Rule #4 in a “blended family” it will work! “It still does not matter what you say, it is what the children say to themselves that changes or controls their behavior!” As a person acting as a parent, whether you are the natural parent or not, you still must orchestrate situations where the child actually says the desired actions or decisions for themselves. Effective decision making skills must be internalized to work for any child.
Finally, if a parent applies our Rule #5 it will work! “Sending a child a constant and continual message of unconditional love will always give that child a sense of personal value that will allow the child to make amazingly great decisions about their own lives.”
The Critical Difference for Step Parents
After years of studying parenting skills I have come to the conclusion that the only thing that makes parenting different in the case of divorce is that the parents somehow view their task as different or they think that they should treat the child in a different manner. That is a terrible error.
The Problems for Children of Divorce
The problems for children of divorce come when parents start to use the child as a tool in their fight with their former spouse!
If there is any special skill needed by parents of the children of divorce it lies in being able to be a true adult about the situation and not using the children in their fight with their former spouse! The only special skill for step parents comes in treating the former spouse with the respect and dignity that is due the other parent of their child!
A step parent should never claim to be the parent of a step child; simply because they do not need to. That child already has two parents. Having said that, the step parent can still be an extremely effective teacher of sound, moral and ethical decisions to be used by the child. A step parent can be an extremely loving, caring, and dignified guide to the children sharing a home.
Parenting with True Dignity
Let me close with one very solid example. Parenting with real dignity and effectiveness can be done by any loving person with the desire to be an effective teacher. This was taught to me by a group of felons in the state penitentiary in Connecticut.
On a visit to that prison, I was privileged to eat dinner with a whole cellblock of men, most of whom had recently completed the Parenting with Dignity Curriculum. My visit came about a month and a half before Christmas and immediately following dinner many of the men in the cafeteria went over and sat on the floor along the wall of the room. When I went over to see what they were doing, I saw that they were all holding white pieces of cloth and they seemed to be sewing on those squares of cloth with needles and thread.
When I asked what they were doing some of them showed me their pieces of cloth. Those were not just any pieces of cloth; they were the men’s pillow slips. What those guys were doing was pretty simple. They were embroidering sayings, scripture verses, and other ideas into those pillow slips to give to their children at Christmas. That way their children could sleep on Dad’s ideas! Those men had selected ideas that they wanted their children to use to rule their worlds. They had found a way to communicate those critical and useful ideas to their children in a very unique, loving, and wonderful way.
It is my firm belief that those men were being much more effective parents to their children than many natural parents on the outside of the prison walls. It was really interesting to me to find out that many of those dads were sending the pillow slips to step children! Effective parenting was being done right through the concrete walls and bars of a prison!
Those men did not need special parenting skills… they just applied the simple and effective tools that they learned from Parenting with Dignity to their own situation!