Friday, December 25, 2009

Competitive Parenting

A father arrives at the home of his children's mother to pick up his kids.  They've been with their mom for three days, celebrating chanukah, cooking, playing, and having fun.  They don't want to leave. 

The dad and his new trophy wife are at the front door, eager to take the children to their respective families' homes for christmas.  Lot's to do, let's get going.  This will be fun.

The kids are clinging to their mom, crying, "I don't want to go with daddy, I want to stay with mommy".  The mom, teary eyed, hands them over, telling them to have fun with their dad.  "I'll miss you but I'll see you soon". 

The dad asks her if she has somehow sabotaged his time with the kids.  She says of course not.  The dad feels terrible, the kids feel terrible, the mom feels terrible.

What would be the right thing to do?  Is it best that the kids learn that they have to do what adults ask of them, or do they have the right to dictate what they want?  They can choose their friends, whether they want to eat their Brussels sprouts.  Why ignore their preferences when they clearly don't want to be with a certain parent at a certain time? Because that is a much bigger decision than they are able to make.  Their input should be considered but it is a decision with repercussions they are not aware of.  A decision that only their family should be able to make.  I shudder when I think that decisions are made by authority figures, other than family, who know the children for days at best, yet the family is unable to do it. 

I shudder to think that people need a license to fish but not to have children.  I cringe to think that in anything other than completely dysfunctional families, the parents can't work things out in the best interests of the children.  I break into a cold sweat thinking about what goes on in homes that are not under scrutiny.  Homes that don't have a gay couple for parents, homes where the parents are not divorced.  Homes where kids are spanked, loaded guns are left unlocked, second-hand smoke wafts through the home, accidents wait to happen, and do. Homes where the standards aren't so high because they are not considered high risk.  When half of all families divorce, when half of all households have guns, I think they are all high risk.

The mom closes the door and is shaking.  It is a scene that reminds her of nazi films where children are taken from parents. 

The dad feels angry and hurt.  What did my ex do to make my kids not want to be with me? 

The dad and mom don't sit down together to discuss what happened, to try to come up with a way to make transitions easier.  At least one of them is too consumed by his or her own feelings that they can't work as a couple to understand the children's feelings.  This is what I call competitive parenting and it does not attempt to do what is right for the children.  It does not attempt to teach children how to deal with difficult situations by setting a mature example.  It's all about winning.  The children will be bribed with special treats by the dad to show that he is really great and they should be happy to be with him.  Even young children lose respect for adults who behave like this.  They take the gifts and learn that acting out brings rewards.

Parenting plans of divorced couples often speak of the need to be "flexible" but there is no concrete description of what this means.  When children are with one parent, the absent parent is allowed to speak with the children at "reasonable times".  Who defines that?  These are the weapons used to wage competitive parenting, and it takes both parents to end the war.  The casualties are always children, no matter how the parents justify their actions.  If an action doesn't begin with "It would be best for the children if...", then it is likely not in their interest.  It is good practice to start each sentence that way when making decisions that involve the children.

I see parallels between drug addiction and divorce.  Each is highly prevalent.  Each  can be prevented but each is only dealt with after it happens.  Each is a disease of our culture and neither has a cure.  We pay lip service to each but continue to take the easy path on two diseases that are eroding our society.  They are too complex to deal with so we develop a one size fits all approach that does not work at either preventing the disease or treating it.

A mother comes to the home of her children's father to pick them up.  The two children, aged 4 and 6 are crying, clinging to their dad, screaming "we don't want to go with mommy". 

The father invites the mother in for a cup of tea, immediately defusing the situation and bringing calm.  The likelihood of this happening is strictly a product of how the two parents have behaved towards each other in the past.  A vicious divorce is unlikely to result in cooperative co-parenting and the result is damaged children.  Why are they damaged?  Because the parents are putting themselves ahead of the children's needs.   Children should not run the show, but that is not what cooperative co-parenting requires.  It requires the ability of parents to put their own egos aside and understand what it is like to be a child in a given situation.  We are more likely to trust a therapist to do that for us, when nobody is better suited than the parents who have known the children all their lives.

Once the ink is dry and the divorce is final, the parents are pretty free to screw up their kids.  Perhaps there is room for a skillful counselor to meet with the parents periodically, in a non judgmental way without the risk of punishment, so that the parents could be honest about how things are going, and maybe even come up with creative solutions to the recurring problems, without the fear that any imperfection will later be held against them.  Maybe our society could throw some money at this.  Or we can keep producing maladapted kids and try to fix them after they're broken.

The parents drink tea together and the children see the parents getting along.  This might be very painful for the father, seeing all the nice stuff in the home that reminds him of the money he considers stolen from him in the divorce.  Anger rises along with the desire to throw the fucking cup of tea in her face and walk out.

If he resists that urge, and the parents recognize that they can help their children by behaving better, in a few months the kids will be less angry, less scared, and better adjusted.  The lifelong benefits are staggering.

Divorce is not fair to children or adults.  We have very few wise people to settle the financial and parenting aspects of the failed marriage, and the wise people that exist do not have the time to spend on something so important.  I can think of nothing more important.

Once the money has been handed over, their is nothing to do but be a good parent in the new reality.  Resentment and anger won't help.  There's no getting even.  As painful as it is, if one cares about one's children, the only right thing to do is be a good parent and learn to cooperate with the other parent.  That means that each parent has to be able to get out of his or her own head and truly try to understand what the other parent is experiencing.  Only true compassion, the lack of narcissism, and a sincere desire to do what is best for the children will allow the children to grow strong, healthy, and happy in a world that is already difficult.  This is a delayed gratification job in a world where we want immediate results.  It's not easy.

But it's a better gift than a new video game.


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