BY Mikki Morrissette
The following is an excerpt from Mikki Morrissette's "Choosing Single Motherhood: the Thinking Woman's Guide" (BE-MONDO PUBLISHING)
It is a daunting task for any couple to raise a healthy, well-balanced child. It can be even more challenging for a single parent, since there is no solid partner available to help alleviate stress, play "good cop, bad cop" in matters of discipline and enforcement, and provide a child with two different sets of skills, perspectives, and networks of family and friends.
Growing up in a single-parent home, without a biological father, can affect a child. But as we also read, good parenting requires skills and supplements that are not exclusive to married couples.
The challenge of any parent is to find the time to create and implement a vision-a strategy for molding a confident, hopeful and happy moral character out of the little personality you have been given. After that baby enters the house, parenting can easily dissolve into a daily struggle to earn, nurture, enjoy, discipline and stress.
On the front end, we are consumed asking ourselves if we're prepared to be mothers. The middle years of parenthood involve an even longer list of questions. Is this the right child care provider? Why won't he sleep? Shouldn't she be talking more by now? Why won't he eat? Am I letting her watch too much TV?
A mother loves her child like no one else, yet in the end, after the child is grown and we breathe a heavy sigh as the door closes and they eagerly depart for college and family and friends of their own making, what will our years of questions and hard work have added up to? How will our child turn out? Will we have raised a well-balanced person?
One of the basic needs of any individual is to feel connected to a larger universe. Our well-being depends on it. And our children will increasingly look to this wider universe for their lifetime of meaningful experiences and relationships. How will they do, when they are navigating on their own? How will we have prepared them? Will they embrace their future with hope and optimism? Will they be able to commit to intimate relationships? Will they achieve goals, respect others, act responsibly?
This, after all, ends up being what the stuff of successful parenting is. More than whether they were breastfed or bottle-fed, cared for in a daycare center or a home, out the door on time with hair combed and teeth brushed, it is the quality of the connections they will make-how they fit into the larger community-that will determine if they are the happy and healthy individuals we want them to be.
Developing a child's inner core is the most important thing a parent can do, yet it is often lost when the juggling act begins. Michael Gurian, one of the experts we talk with in this chapter, has said, "Most of us are too busy to think of our children as being anything other than 'boys' or 'girls.' This, like thinking of them as 'kids,' is worthy and important, but how little we think of them as souls."
In this chapter, we will hear from nationally respected child development experts I consulted for this book. We will boil down their theories, and other things we have learned throughout this book, into a definition of what children need in order to become well-balanced individuals. Then we will turn these concepts into a game plan that any mother can use as a guide until her guiding days are done.
In a nutshell, I propose that the plan we develop in this ambitious chapter is the minimum requirement for any parent.
Concept #1: The Basics
Children do not need perfect lives in order to grow up whole. They learn from mistakes (yes, even mom's) and can develop strength from bad times. What they do need are a few essentials designed to make them feel secure, connected, accepted and hopeful.
Richard Weissbourd suggests in The Vulnerable Child that a well-balanced child needs:
- order and consistency;
- a continuous relationship with a caring adult who sees the child as special;
- interaction with an adult who stimulates, engages, challenges and provides a compass for meeting social and moral expectations;
- strong friendships and community ties;
- protection from exploitation and discrimination, as well as a sense of justice and opportunity for achievement;
- attention to any special health, social and educational needs
"When children have these ingredients," he writes, "they are likely to have trust in themselves and in the world, inner vitality and resourcefulness, and the capacity in adulthood for zestful play and for gratifying work and love, even if they suffer hardships and abrasions. Children who grow up without these ingredients are clearly not African-American children or underclass children or children in single-parent families only. Looking at children in this way forces policy makers and the public to see the many vulnerable children in this country who are not poor."
Concept #2: Understanding the Child
Michael Gurian, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka and others talk a great deal about 'nature-based parenting.' Rather than attempt to mold children to a parents' vision of who they should be, the attentive parent reaches in to understand a child's strengths and weaknesses, and teaches that child how to recognize and handle their own feelings. The more "emotional intelligence" a child develops in this way, the more able he or she is to make connections, tackle challenges with confidence, negotiate differences, maintain self-esteem, cope with ups and downs-and cooperate with Mom.
As Kurcinka explains, if a parent realizes her child is introverted, for example, she will understand that he needs time alone in order to feel energized after a long day at school. When he starts to get surly, she will help him recognize that he needs alone-time, and enable him to get it until he's recharged-rather than push him to talk about his day and get upset when he grunts.
Extraverted children provide a special challenge to the single parent. They are at their best when they can be engaged in activities and need regular feedback. "There is no way one parent, especially an introverted parent, can keep up with the interaction needs of an extraverted spirited child," Kurcinka says. This kind of child needs to be taught to ask for attention and encouragement from grandparents, mentors, friends and neighbors, rather than simply have mom yell "Give me a break!"
It is easy to agree with this philosophy. It is more difficult to implement. But understanding how the brains of boys and girls are wired differently helps (see Gurian's books). Understanding the innate temperamental styles of children-which you can't yell out of them-helps (see Kurcinka's books). And letting the child know that mom is attempting to understand helps tremendously.
Concept #3: Community, Community
There are so many reasons community is vital to a child that it has appeared in many chapters of this book already-and every child development expert I talked to brought it up as an essential component of successful parenting.
As we discussed in Chapters 6 and 7, research indicates that children grow up best when they have a balance of influences that single parents will struggle with alone. One of the (stereotypical perhaps) benefits of having a father in the home, for example, is generally to serve as the rule-driven parent of authority, compared to mom's flexible stature as nurturer.
This is one reason why Kyle Pruett and others recommend that a team of secondary caregivers-at least one of them male-be in place at the earliest age to help Mom:
- encourage both connection to others and independence;
- instill a sense of personal safety as well as assertiveness;
- offer predictability and flexibility;
- have respect for relationships and rules;
- be duty-bound as well as empathetic;
- provide an environment that is demanding and responsive.
Michael Gurian talks about the importance of community to help form character in an even larger sense. "Mentors and intimate role models rarely exist to show in any long-term and consistent way how both to serve a group and flourish as an independent self," he wrote in The Wonder of Boys. With busy parents and little emphasis today on cultivating the soul, celebrities too often become the heroes, peers the role models.
The typical single mother is considering what family and friends can help her get through the first few years-but community is so much more than that. And the sooner she develops a creative list of outlets, the better able she will head off the often predictable stages of loneliness and isolation that can occur in single parenthood.
Kurcinka advises that community organizations and individuals be found early to give parents predictable breaks from their child. "That way you know your child is with other good, healthy adults and you can have time to pursue some of your own interests and needs," she told me. "The more you can set up a predictable routine that includes time together, time with others as family, and time apart, the smoother things will go. When you're feeling tired, for example, you'll know that Tuesday night is YOURS while your child is with his 'big sister' or at Scouts."
This benefits more than Mom's sanity. As Weissbourd points out, "Children of all ages should have a variety of opportunities for exploring their environment and talking with adults."
That means communities, not just parents, need to offer meaningful activities for children that build trust, self-confidence and a sense of hopefulness and excitement about the future. "Decent environments not only provide clear discipline and encourage children to absorb basic social expectations and norms," he says, "they also give children the knowledge and skills, the practical strokes-such as how to ask for directions or for change-that will enable them to swim in the mainstream."
This emphasis on community means you need to identify adults in your neighborhood whom children respect, who look out for their safety as if they were their own. You need to generate or find informal networks and events that support kids. You need to help build communities that believe that all adults are responsible for all children-not just their own. And it means, even as a busy single parent, you eventually need to get out of the house and the workplace and participate in that community. A dedicated mother will volunteer to coach or teach a skill at the community center or church where her child grows.
Concept #4: Establish Mutual Respect
Some believe a child without two loving parents in the home miss out on the lessons of seeing adults work out conflicts in a healthy way and relate to each other with love, trust, and respect. However, many of the children I talked to for Chapter 16: How Are the Kids Turning Out? didn't agree with this concern, indicating that the strong relationship they have with Mom (for those who did) was example enough.
What I did see, with those kids who had loving connections with their Choice Moms, was a great deal of mutual respect. And this, I believe, is the key ingredient to building healthy relationships with anyone. It also ties directly to the other concepts we've discussed.
When a child has a mother who attempts to understand the innate personality within, and helps him or her find words to express frustration as well as appropriate outlets for energy and emotion, that child grows up not only with self-respect, but with respect for the authority and the nurturer that is mom. And when that child and mother have several others in the community to turn to for support and encouragement, the parent-child relationship doesn't get overburdened and overwhelmed.
Wendy and her teenage son are one of several parent-child teams I interviewed who I greatly admire for their strength in this area. Wendy was married when she conceived using a donor, but divorced soon after. She was relieved that her son wouldn't grow up in an atmosphere of hostility, but was intimidated by the awesome responsibility of nurturing "this little human being alone. "Any mistakes that are made, it's all me. I would get the glory, but also all the blame."
Like most women who actively choose to raise a child without a partner, Wendy embraced her role as "the most important job I would ever have in my life. I worked on my own issues so they wouldn't be passed along. I knew I couldn't be a perfect mother, but I would ask for forgiveness when I made mistakes. I would keep the playing ground equal so we would both be very accepting of each other-and then hopefully he would be with himself too."
More than a decade later, Wendy's strategy has paid off noticeably. Even in private, under guarantee of confidentiality, her teenage son had terrific things to say about the way she raised him. "I have a great, involved mom," he told me. "From handling almost every aspect of my education to instilling in me a sense of right and wrong, she's done it all. And to be perfectly honest, I feel that she has done most everything right. She gives me all the freedom a teen needs without ever having to worry about me trying pot or a cigarette or anything like that."
Concept #5: Authoritative Parenting
Wendy brought up another important aspect of quality parenting: maintaining the division between parent and child by establishing the mother's authority. In fact, mutual respect enhanced her ability to be The Enforcer. She has never needed to yell or threaten her son, she told me. All she needed to do was give him "the look."
"Even now, he towers over me, is 50 pounds heavier, and I can almost bring him to tears with 'the look,'" she said. "It comes from having respect for each other, I think. At this age, he sees friends yelling at their moms, and families where the teenager becomes the boss. But he would never say anything disrespectful to me.
"It's challenging-you need to have a friendship, when it's mom and one kid together so much of the time you need to like each other. But having clearly defined boundaries between parent and child is very important."
Diana, whose college-aged daughter also expresses great respect for Mom, said establishing authority was difficult at first. "I didn't know how to say no," she told me. She adopted her daughter at 13 months from a family that had provided little nurturing. "I just wanted to hold her. For a long time when she was a child, all she wanted to do was sit on my lap. It was hard for me to learn how to discipline her."
But slowly she managed to put rules in place that helped establish her authority. When I'm eating you can't interrupt me. There is no time it is appropriate for you to hit someone.
It helped Diana to realize that setting limits didn't have to involve anger, but developing her daughter's sense of empathy. It hurts my feelings when you do that. When you wake me up at night it makes me tired and more likely to get colds.
Diana's daughter is now a highly disciplined, moral young adult. As Diana told me, "I recently asked her whether I was a successful authority figure. She said, 'Absolutely not. You were never any kind of authority figure. What you always had was an ethic that what you communicated was inviolable."
Establishing rules is naturally harder for a single parent-even a strong one. Speaking from experience, with the wisdom of many other single mothers I have talked with, it is difficult to always be the "heavy" with your child. And it is tough to avoid caving into demands without the support of another adult. Especially since, as Pruett says, any parent working alone gets "old," with a natural lessening of authority over time.
Research by gender-identity specialist Barbara Risman5 revealed that even in single-father households there tend to be weaker controls and fewer demands, suggesting that it is the logistical factor of solo parenthood, rather than the sex of the parent, that makes the difference in establishing the important authoritative approach to parenting. Kids in single-parent households tend to seem more mature, which leads the parent to be more permissive and take less of a supervisory role.
But not only is it easier to avert trouble with kids if the parent consistently establishes her authority, but as Wendy and her son are a good example of, it helps to create respect.
As child expert and Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg wrote with co-author Ann Levine in the highly regarded You and Your Adolescent: A Parent's Guide for Ages 10-20, the authoritative parent:
- solicits the child's opinion,
- allows the child to voice disagreements,
- can be persuaded to reconsider a decision,
- values curiosity and self-direction
- wants their child to understand the reasons for their demands and restrictions, so explains why behavior is inappropriate,
- does not hesitate to assert their authority if reasoning fails,
- does not demand unquestioning obedience,
- sets limits based on love.
"This is in contrast to 'permissive' or 'indulgent' parents, who love their children dearly but have difficulty setting limits or imposing rules, and 'authoritarian' or 'autocratic' parents, who are controlling and in charge, but who discipline their children harshly and without sufficient affection or discussion," they wrote.
They echo the concerns raised in Chapter 6, and Risman's research, pointing out that the biggest issue for single parents with adolescents is maintaining control, because they grant more independence, don't have the time or energy for authoritative parenting, and have only one set of eyes and ears for monitoring a teen's activities. They also point out, "If a single parent maintains an authoritative relationship, however, any problems that might develop can be averted."
About the author
MIKKI MORRISSETTE, HTTP://www.ChoosingSingleMotherhood.com
She can be reached at BE_MONDO@YAHOO.COM
This was an excerpt from Chapter 14:
HOW TO RAISE A WELL-BALANCED CHILD, IN MIKKI MORRISSETTE'S "CHOOSING SINGLE MOTHERHOOD: THE THINKING WOMAN'S GUIDE"
(BE-MONDO PUBLISHING, 2005)