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Discipline After Divorce

My 3-year-old son was playing in the sandbox with his younger sister when they started fighting. On any other day, it would have been routine -- a stolen shovel, an attempt to grab it back, and a swift but loving intervention from me. However, that particular day was the day after my husband and I had decided to end our marriage. I freaked out, grabbed both kids, and screamed that they must never, ever hit each other again -- or else.

Or else what? Or else I, a newly single mom, would be convinced that my divorce had irrevocably harmed my kids. I knew that kids from single-parent families are more likely to drop out of school, do drugs, and have other discipline problems. "If you look at the statistics, you'd think that all children of single parents are doomed," says Diane Chambers Shearer, author of Solo Parenting (Fairview, 1997). I thought I knew why too: I'd never felt so tired and overwhelmed in my life.

In addition, kids' bad behavior is trickier to decipher after a divorce. Is your 3-year-old hitting his sister because he misses his dad or because that's what kids do before learning to share? Did your third-grader stop doing homework because she's bored, or is she mad about moving away from her friends? As a single parent, you can't simply discipline your kids for misbehaving; you need to decode the emotions underlying their misbehavior. But, as I discovered over time, being single doesn't mean your kids are destined to be troublemakers. Though they may test you more because they think you'll be a pushover, "good parenting has less to do with the number of parents at home than with the quality of the parenting," says therapist Cheryl Erwin, coauthor of Positive Discipline for Single Parents (Prima, 1999). "Your job is to consider what makes your family's situation unique and to deal with it so you can make the best discipline decisions possible."

The key to effective discipline is to be consistent, so your kids will know you mean business and not be confused. It's understandably difficult, therefore, for them to play by different rules in different homes. And it can be tough for you to be firm if you think they're having more fun -- or getting away with more -- when they're not with you.

Margaret Welch, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, found this out firsthand when she got divorced last year. She shares custody of her three young children with her ex-husband and often finds herself playing the bad-cop role. She says no to certain videos, for example, that the kids' dad lets them watch. "Their father gives in to them on everything," she sighs. "But I'm determined not to let my kids use the divorce as a crutch for bad behavior or to let them manipulate me into changing my mind about which rules I want them to follow in my house."

Of course, even married parents disagree about discipline sometimes, leading kids to pit one parent against the other in order to get what they want. But conflicting parenting styles can pose even more complex dilemmas for a single parent, because there's never anyone to back you up. There's also no one to give you feedback about whether you're overreacting or being fair, says Lynda Hunter-Bjorklund, Ed.D., author of Parenting on Your Own (HarperCollins, 1997). To make matters worse, your former spouse may deliberately break your discipline rules because he's angry or wants to get even.

Ideally, you should discuss important discipline issues with your ex so the same standards will apply in both homes. But if the two of you aren't in sync, you need to focus on discipline in terms of your own long-range parenting goals, Erwin advises. For instance, although it may make your kids happy to play video games all weekend instead of pitching in and cleaning the house, "permitting that only encourages them to think that love means giving someone everything he wants," she explains. Having established rules -- even if they're not popular -- makes kids feel more secure.

The reality, of course, is that the demands of daily life can make it hard to enforce your rules all the time. If your kids balk about bedtime, sometimes it just seems easier to sigh and watch TV with them than to fight. When it's your daughter's turn to wash the dishes and she forgets, you may be too exhausted to argue and end up scrubbing the pots yourself. "Because you don't want more conflict, it's tempting to avoid upsetting the children by asking them to do things they don't want to do," Erwin says.

Bad idea. You may wake up to find that the balance of power in your household has shifted to the kids. Step back and decide what behavior boundaries are reasonable, Dr. Hunter-Bjorklund suggests. Are your kids really old enough to clean the entire kitchen after dinner, or should they just clear the table? What kind of language do you consider rude? Just how much of their homework should they be expected to do without your help?

One of the best ways to win your children's co-operation is through regular family meetings. "Even if there are only two of you, you're still a family," Shearer says. Let your kids know that you have some ideas about how you can all work together, and tell them you'd like to hear their ideas too. A possible item on your meeting agenda: creating a chore chart that lists what the kids need to do and when.

Don't forget, however, that one of the benefits of single parenthood is that you're the one who decides what standards your children will live by in your home -- there's no spouse looking over your shoulder to contradict or undermine you. And you'll be able to take great pride in watching your children grow up to be happy, responsible adults.

  • Making snap judgments when you're tired or frustrated. Instead, take a deep breath, count to ten, and think about the message you want to send before you rush to punish.
  • Letting your kids compare your rules to your ex's. Nip this conversation in the bud by telling them matter-of-factly, "That's the way it is here. Dad and I just have different opinions about certain things."
  • Fighting with your ex over trivial things. It's not worth making a big deal about how much candy your kids eat or whether they take a bath every night. Save your energy for more important issues.
  • Giving in because you want your kids to love you. Trying to be your child's friend instead of his parent will backfire when you lose your authority.