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."