With apologies to the Peace Corps, which coined the phrase, we would argue that parenting is really the “toughest job you’ll ever love.” And it can be even tougher for single parents. You don’t have backup, you don’t get sick days. It’s all on you, all the time.
No matter how rewarding parenting is, most single parents wish it were easier. As family law attorneys, we see a lot of single parents. We have accumulated a number of parenting tips for single parents, both for making life easier on themselves and better for their children.
1. Build Positive Relationships with Your Kids.
You love your kids, but how much do you enjoy them? Having fun with your kids may seem like an unaffordable luxury when you have to work, take care of the household, make meals, help with homework, and provide discipline. The irony is that taking time to build positive relationships with your kids can make raising them much less work.
One thing you can do is pay “positive attention” to your child. Sometimes single parents are so busy, the only way a child can be sure of getting a parent’s attention is to misbehave. But kids need and crave attention, and they will behave in a way that ensures they receive it. You can use this to your advantage by “catching your kids being good.”
If your chronically-late second grader is actually ready early for school one day, be sure to compliment him. If your usually-sulky teen hangs out in the kitchen talking after dinner, be sure to mention how much you enjoyed the time with her. Chances are the behavior you reward with positive attention will increase.
2. Remember All Behavior is Communication.
Children’s behavior can be frustrating, sometimes infuriating. It can be even more so when you don’t have another adult around to manage the behavior. You may not be able to change your kids’ behavior, at least not right away, but you might be able to reframe it in a way that makes it easier to deal with.
One concept that has helped a lot of parents is this simple four-word phrase: all behavior is communication. Children, especially young ones, may not have the words to express their needs. Instead, those needs come out in behavior. A child who drags his feet getting ready for school (even though he knows what time the bus comes) probably isn’t trying to make your life harder. He may be communicating anxiety about school, or even that he needs more time with you—the time he gets in the car when you drive him to school after he misses the bus. Your child almost certainly isn’t doing it on purpose and probably couldn’t tell you why he struggles to get ready on time.
Asking yourself, “What is my child trying to tell me?” rather than asking your child, “Why are you doing this to me?” will be more productive for you. It will also help you to respond in a more loving and patient way, which will help build positive relationships (see Tip #1).
3. Structure Makes Kids Feel Safer.
In the wake of a separation or divorce, it can feel like the world is upended—not only for you, but for your kids. It can be tempting to ease up on rules and expectations regarding your kids (and yourself). After all, hasn’t everyone been through enough?
Well, yes. But letting rules slide probably isn’t doing your kids the favor you think it is. The breakup of your relationship has already made them feel vulnerable. Rules and routines provide much-needed structure and meaning. It doesn’t mean that you have to bark like a drill sergeant if the kids’ rooms aren’t in perfect order, or that dinner must be served every night at 6:00 p.m. sharp. But having regular chores, expectations, and mealtimes will provide the structure kids crave and help them feel more secure.
Particularly if you are all adjusting to a new separation or divorce, recognize that your kids need hugs, laughs, and other affection, probably more than usual. You may feel like you need time to yourself, but devoting time to your kids will pay dividends in both the long and short term.
You can even build in time for more affection and quality time as part of your new “routine.” Maybe you can have a dance party before bath time, go for ice cream after homework, or make time every Saturday morning to go for a hike. This will continue to give the kids structure while giving you an opportunity to observe their emotions. It will also allow them time and space to express themselves to you and to spend some true quality time with you.
4. Find Your Support People.
Just because you don’t have a partner doesn’t mean you have to parent alone. You may have missed the short-lived sitcom “Single Parents,” but it offers a valuable lesson. Centered around a group of parents whose kids are classmates, the unmarried parents in the class find themselves gravitating together and becoming a support system. Some are widowed, some divorced, some never married, but all share the experience of parenting without a partner.
Life isn’t as tidy as a half-hour comedy, and it may take some time to find your support system of fellow single parents, but it’s worth it. Not only can you trade babysitting and school pickups, but you can also offer each other invaluable moral support. In a world that seems full of parents who are partnered and perfect, having single parent friends can help you remember that you’re not alone, and that you are doing a good job.
Remember, too, that you cannot be everything to every person at all times. If the thought of picking up one more dirty sock makes you feel like you are going to explode, which then makes you lose your temper over something silly, which leads to hurt feelings and resentment, then maybe outsource that task if you can. If you are strapped for time when it comes to dinner, maybe sign up for a healthy meal service. Not only will it save you time and effort, but maybe it can provide another activity for you and your kids to explore.
5. Be Kind to Yourself.
Especially if you were the one who made the decision to separate from a partner, you may be feeling guilt about the changes in your children’s life. You may worry that you are going to mess up somehow, and make things harder for your kids.
Spoiler alert: you will mess up. You will lose your temper, you will forget an important event, you will make mistakes. The good news is that your kids will survive all of it—and so will you. They may feel hurt or angry, and they may act out. But with honesty, love, and a willingness to ask for forgiveness, you will all be able to move on, and even strengthen your relationship. It’s easy to assume that the grass is always greener on the other side, but it’s important to remember that your parenting wouldn’t have been perfect even if you were still partnered, and there would have been different stresses on your kids.
Yes, you may feel guilty for being the one to initiate the separation, but your kids deserve to see you thrive. They will learn that it is not just okay, but necessary, to advocate for themselves and to get themselves out of relationships that no longer serve them. Seeing you stand up for yourself is going to teach them a life-long lesson in confidence and self-love. Even if the relationship wasn’t bad, if you are unhappy, your children will be unhappy. Teaching them to seek out only the best for themselves is invaluable.
Make the best choices you can with the information and resources you have available, and forgive yourself for the inevitable missteps. You don’t have to be a perfect parent to be a good one.