I have a friend who grew up in a split home. Her father abandoned their family, moved to a town several hours away, and left his ex-wife to raise their five children alone. She was angry, of course. She was hurt, deeply. She struggled as a single-working-mother. I think she probably really tried to do her best for her kids given her circumstances.
But she did it all wrong. She was bitter and she let her kids know it. She was angry and she expressed that to her children regularly. She told her kids the terrible things their father had done and she took every opportunity she could to tear him down. She made it very clear that he was a bad person, and a bad father.
And while she was working hard to support her children all by herself and probably loving them the best way she knew how, the seeds of disrespect and anger and confusion had been planted in her children's minds. They could have grown up to understand the difficult situation their mother was in. They could have grown up to understand how many sacrifices their mother had made and the love that was probably behind all of them.
But every time she spoke harshly about their father, those kids put another brick in the wall they were building to protect themselves from the negativity. Their wall grew to be so tall and so thick that by the time they reached adolescence they were already having a difficult time seeing reality. After a few years of experiencing their mother's invective and negativity, their father had become the hero.
Their father had abandoned them. He provided little in the way of support. He had minimal involvement in their lives. But he became the hero. Nevermind that their mother was working long hours to give them a home, to feed them, to clothe them. Nevermind that their welfare was probably the only thing on her mind most days. Nevermind that she proably loved those five children far more than they could ever possibly know.
All those kids could hear were the hurtful words. And because dad wasn't there, dad wasn't speaking harshly, dad wasn't spilling over with anger, dad became the hero. Those kids grew up and left mom to go find dad. Those few birthday cards he sent over the years, those few fun visits to the ice cream shop were what they knew of their father and they were positive things. In the wake of their mother's negativity and hurt, the kids conjured up an imaginary father that didn't exist in reality, but it made them feel good.
Kids just want to feel good. People just want to feel good.
I have tried my best to remember this as I wade through my own divorce and its aftermath. I have had to remind myself often that negativity not only hurts me, but it really hurts the kids that I want to love and protect. I have made this a rule that, although sometimes difficult to follow, is always a no-exception rule.
- Never (and I mean Never) express negative feelings about your ex (your spouse, your mother-in-law, etc.) around your kids.
- This rule includes not only hateful comments, but also snide remarks, eye rolling, door slamming, etc.
There are no special circumstances in which this rule does not apply.
This rule is applicable no matter the age of your children. If they are 2 months old and you think they are too young to understand that you are griping about their father, you are wrong. If they are 35 years old and you think they are old enough to know that life is hard so it is okay to tell them all the terrible things their mother has done to you over the years, you are wrong. Don't try to convince yourself that you are telling them negative things for their own good.
No good ever comes from tearing someone down.
It is okay to have negative feelings. It is okay to be angry, to be hurt, to be sad. It is even okay to express these feelings - but don't put the burden of these emotions on your kids at any age. If you are a parent, it can't just be about you.
I write this today as a reminder for myself, a personal parenting manifesto of sorts. Keep it positive. I have enough examples in my own life of people who got this right and of people who got it all wrong to know which path I am going to take as a parent. It's called the High Road, not the Easy Road, but I can tell you with certainty that when it comes to our kids, biting our tongues is the best way to remain a force for good in their lives.
Remember the negativity rule. Make it about the kids and make it positive.