Survival Skills for the Divorced Single Dad.

June 21, 2010

-this essay is based on my notes from a teaching I gave on 8/10/06 for a weekend parenting conference some friends were running for my church. I was asked to give the “single dad perspective.” I felt inadequate then, and I still do today.

Me and my son, drawn by him many years ago...

Me and my son, drawn by him many years ago...

“Fathers will teach the next generation,
     or they will lose the next generation.
Fathers will speak to the next generation
     about the many providences of God
     in protecting and preserving them,
     or the next generation will be without hope.
Fathers will cultivate gratitude,
     or they will produce a generation of ingrates.
Fathers will walk beside their sons,
     teaching them to honor their fathers,
     or there will be no America left to defend.”
          -Douglas W. Phillips

There are those times when our Heavenly Father breaks through with such clarity that we cannot deny he has spoken to us. Such was one of those times for me shortly before my ex-wife and I were divorced. I will not go into my list of grievances I had against her, but I was bringing them before the Lord in an effort to make sense of the mess my marriage had become. Because he is a gracious God and because I was feeling anything but gracious at the time, I felt like he was directing me in a path I did not want to follow. In anger and frustration and with my finger pointed at the sky, I blurted out loud: “But God, she has made herself my enemy!!!” For a split second I felt a smug justification to walk whatever path I wanted, until the Lord retorted with: “And what are you supposed to do with your enemies?” This moment was the greatest revelation God could have given me for the walk I was soon to begin. I cannot for a minute pretend I followed this principle with her at all times, I am a man of flesh and bone as well as the spirit, and in this spirit-flesh war, I am not proud of the ground I’ve given up to the flesh. However, having this moment to lean on gave me the strength to respond in love at times when it really counted. There are moments in my over ten-year-history of divorce that I wanted to go in with guns and lawyers blazing, but the Lord bit my tongue and the Spirit turned my cheek in the right direction.

Divorce is ugly (it is one of the few things that God says he hates), and it usually never results in a happy ending. However, when at least one of the parties submits him or herself to God as much he or she is able in the midst of the wreckage, God can and will turn what is meant for evil into good. I can confidently say that despite all the dumb-ass mistakes that I and my ex have made over the course of our volatile relationship; God has brought us to the place that could be the best possible situation for our kids who are stuck living in the middle of a severed family.  I would like to share a few lessons the Lord has taught me over the years. I, by no means, can be considered an expert; so far, I have only a 50% success rate with my boys (I have a great relationship with one, while the other wants nothing to do with me), but if experience has anything to do with wisdom, these words might be worth your time if you find yourself in a similar situation or know someone who is. Please take them with a grain of salt.

You and your spouse split up for a reason, right? So it should be no surprise when the two of you end up having vastly different parenting styles. When this happens you need to again (and again, and again) respond in love while you learn to respect your children’s “extended” family.  The hard truth is that dads almost always get the short end of the stick when it comes to divorce, but you need to man up and make the best of the situation for your kids. One reason why it is so hard for divorced dads who want to be good parents is because there are so many “boys” laying their seed everywhere and not taking responsibility, partly because they never had a proper father figure of their own. If you are not the custodial parent you need to make your place of dwelling a home as much as possible. Even if you are stuck in a one bedroom apartment, you need to make a space that “belongs” to your children. They need something that they can claim as their own to feel confident that your place is home for them as well. When they are there, you need to spend time with them and do it on their level. It is very difficult to bond with your kids when you’re only around part-time, but it is not impossible. Plato famously said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play, than in a year of conversation.” If you want to create opportunities for you children to trust you and talk to you, you need to play with them.  I once knew a father who put his kids up in the guest room at his house, they always had to unpack their clothes and toys from their mom’s place, and then he wondered why they would never respect him or want to come over.

When the kids are young, I think it is best to set down a specific schedule of the times you and your ex will be responsible for them. It avoids confusion and can prevent those moments when your kid is the only one who didn’t get a ride home from practice. I think my ex and I avoided a lot of conflict with the understanding that if it was my weekend, then I would be the one to make sure the kid got to his game, recital, friend’s birthday party or whatever. As the kids get older, I think it’s important to give them more freedom in choosing how much time they want to spend at each of their parents houses. This is an emotionally tough call, but it goes with the hard decision that every good parent has to make to offer their kids more and more freedom in order to let them grow up into responsible adults. If your child prefers your ex’s place to yours, you should respect that, but you should also ask them what you could do to make your place more accommodating. If you can’t (because of limited money), or you won’t (because of values), explain to them why. While they might not respect it in the moment, this is an opportunity to teach them to be financially responsible, or more importantly to make good moral choices.

Since you and your ex will likely have different sets of values, you are going to have to learn to be flexible with morality, but at the same time, you need to know what areas you are not willing to compromise in and draw a clear line of expectation for your children. In a healthy marriage, a couple will discuss the hard decisions and reason together in order to discover if one is being too strict or the other too easy. They can then come back to the child with a united decision. In a divorce you only get hearsay about what the other parent is doing, and it’s not always easy to hear. If you feel your child is in serious danger, you should confront the other parent; however, you need to accept that even in the white-picket-fence scenario, your kids will eventually walk out that gate and get all that temptation for corruption in one form or another. The best thing for any parent to do is to prepare their children for making the right choice when faced with sin rather than just try to keep them hidden from it. If you have rules that are stricter than your ex’s, you should be prepared to openly discuss why and explain your reasons for your “not in my house” policy. “Because I said so,” just doesn’t cut it. What is the point if you only tell them “no”? Your children need to be armed with the knowledge of why something is harmful to them, or why you feel they are not yet ready for something.

No matter what your ex (or her new spouse) does, or how she behaves, or what she says about you, you cannot disrespect her in front of your kids. This includes complaining about her with other people. You will need to find strong shoulders to lean on and strong ears to bitch at; you need to vent, but never do it in front of your kids. The Bible commands everyone to “honor your father and your mother.” If you dishonor your ex in front of your kids and in essence ask them to take sides, you are planting seeds in their minds that could eventually grow into sin. If you have any anger or jealousy towards your ex, do your best not to show it to your kids; take your grief to the Lord.

One major mistake that I see single dads and moms make, especially as their kids grow older (perhaps out of guilt, perhaps out of a desire to be hip so they can get a younger, newer model for the role of spouse), is to try and be more of a friend to their kids than a parent. You can and should have a friendly relationship with your kids, but you are the parent, and you need to fill that role first. Frankly, even though it’s hard to find time, you need to go out and find your own friends. If you try to fill your emotional needs with your kids, you will lose perspective and not be able to make good judgments while you are trying to guide and discipline them. Of course, you always want your kids to like you, but if you are more concerned with them liking you than teaching them to make good decisions, you are only causing them harm, and you ultimately will lose their respect. The fact of the matter is you can’t make your child like you, or even love you, but you can demand that they show you respect, and if you do that, they will likely show other adults respect and become more successful in life in general.

On the other hand, you always must discipline in love and not in anger. This is something I had trouble with when my kids were younger, especially with my oldest son, and I’m sure this is one reason why he is resistant to have a relationship with me now. It has been a process, but first I learned to admit it when I overreacted, and at this point I have really learned to control my anger when I feel it coming. Disciplining in love is not as hard as it seems, but it can become complicated. It is simply stepping back and considering why you are upset and controlling your emotions before you respond. If your child has clearly violated your trust or done something that deserves a consequence, you need to consider what punishment will result in the strongest benefit for your child (not necessarily what punishment fits the crime).  What will teach him to make the right choice next time? The hard truth is this will be different for every kid and often different for each situation. With practice and time, responding in a calm and loving manner becomes not so hard; the complicated part is coming up with the best way to handle the crime! You will make mistakes and you will make them often. The important thing is to try to learn from your mistakes, and the most important thing is to admit you made one.

Whether or not you realize yourself that you blew it, or if God or a friend calls you out, or even if your kids call you out, when you are wrong: admit it! Some fathers have a hard time admitting when they are wrong out of a fear of losing authority, but the result is just the opposite. If you can’t admit when you make a mistake, everyone under your authority will eventually loose respect for you and stop paying attention to anything you say. When you admit your mistakes to your kids, you are validating their feelings of betrayal and respecting them as individual persons. This gives them the opportunity to forgive you and develop a stronger character. Your actions will also model humility, and when they make their mistakes, whether it’s out of just acting foolish or out of blatant rebellion, they will be more likely to admit they were wrong when confronted by you, and likewise, when they are confronted in their future relationships.

The last and most important thing is to model your relationship with God right in front of them. Pray, worship, and evangelize in front of them and with them. Especially, prayer. The Bible commands us to pray continually. My ex and I were just nineteen when we eloped. I remember having a conversation with a single friend while we were in our early twenties, and he was marveling at the impossibility of that command. I laughed and told him to just wait until he had kids; he would find that he could fulfill the command more out of need and desperation than obedience! The fact is we can’t control what happens to our kids; we can’t make them believe what we believe, and we can only protect them so much and hope to teach and influence them to make good choices and walk in the best path that God has laid out for them. All the earth belongs to the Lord, even your kids. The most powerful thing we can do for them is to cover them in prayer. Learning to practice spiritual warfare is required of good parenting. When they are young we need to pray with them, and point out to them when God answers their prayers. You need to pray with them for blessing over your ex, even when she just did something really wrong to you right in front of them. They will learn to bless those who persecute them.

Learn to model your parenting after God. He is our Heavenly Father, first as our Creator, second as we become born again in the Spirit and that mysterious relationship is restored. How often do we screw up before God and then cry out for mercy just one more time? Think about how He responds to you the next time you want to smack your kid upside the head for doing the same dumb thing over and over again. This is hard for some guys. We often see God through the flawed relationship we’ve had with our earthly fathers. We think God will respond to us with judgment and criticism because that is what our dads did. Ironically, this revelation is what often prompted me to get myself right with God and kept me on my knees. I know if my kids need anything at all from me, it is the legacy of Jesus. I don’t want them to blame God for my mistakes.

If you are still working on your relationship with your Heavenly Father, look into scripture that references God as a parent (for instance, the prodigal son parable). If you are having trouble having faith that the scripture is for you, watch fathers in your congregation that have had success with respect and love from their children. The Apostle Paul tells his readers to follow his example as he follows Christ’s example. Pick men in the church that you respect and ask them to mentor you, or at least to be a sounding board when you need wisdom in a situation. There are three particular men in my church who I was lucky enough to watch and learn from. I saw God and grace all over their relationship with their kids, and I wanted it with mine. First, I just kind of observed and watched how they did things. Eventually, I had questions for them about why they did what they did. Now I call two of them my best friends, and I still go to the other one, who is old enough to be my father, for advice when I need it.

If you are freshly divorced, you are probably angry at the world and don’t want to spend quality time with anyone, but you can’t do it alone. There are some single parents who, out of guilt and/or a desire to hide from adult relationships, sacrifice every ounce of their personal time for their kids. You need a healthy support system. You need spiritual guidance, and you need practical advice and practical help. You need someone who will go out and have a couple of beers with you and let you whine all night, but also stop you from having any more than just a couple of beers. You need positive and wise friends and you need God. Without both, you can’t be a healthy parent.

Peter L Richardson

“After the war…”

Now that chaos has died down,
     we’ve called truce,
     drawn up our peace-treaties,
     and learned to negotiate like neighbors.
I think about the casualties of war,
     the survivors and innocent victims
     caught in the destruction.
It is they who are most deeply affected
     as the borders and boundaries
     change in their lives like the seasons.
How can they hold identity?
What heritage do they have to cling to?
To whom will they pledge their allegiance?
     But they do have choice.

I have fought long and hard and deep
     for this land.
To provide a place for them,
     a safe haven,
     a home.
The land won—a wilderness:
     A scorched scar on the earth.
But I have bled my fingers to the bone,
     broken my body like bread,
Filling the land and removing the stone,
Planting seed and building new home.

After the smoke is cleared,
After the infrastructure is finally
     coming together,
I receive the first fruits of prosperity
     for this new nation…
Fruit to provide for my people
     for the offspring…

Now that that is all done,
     what have I won?
The work so long and so hard,
     I wonder,
          do they trust me?
And what have I won,
     without their trust?

Peter L Richardson


5 Responses to “Survival Skills for the Divorced Single Dad.”

  1. […] original here:  Survival Skills for the Divorced Single Dad. « Peterrock12. What I …SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "Survival Skills for the Divorced Single Dad. « Peterrock12. What I […]

  2. Angie Says:

    Hi Pete,

    Read this one through–nice! Love the pic!


    • peterrock12 Says:

      Thanks, Angie! I’m glad you made it all the way through one!;) And it’s even better that you enjoyed it. Some of the wisdom aquired began with some of our marathon conversations about life…

  3. Steph Says:

    Hey Pete,
    Great insight! A lot of parents could use this advice, divorced or not!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: