Teaching Children About Loving Relationships
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Good parenting (and even TV!) can help
I was obsessing. It was an issue that had been nagging me for several years, and now that my daughter is readying to leave for college, the issue is hitting me over the head like a sledgehammer.
Did I do it correctly? Did it work? Will she find love? Will she have healthy romantic relationships in spite of having a Solo Mom who never had relationships at all—because she was too busy working and raising two kids?
And why have I been obsessing over this?
I’ll tell you why: I believed the hype. I read too many articles and statistics. I was overparenting, overcompensating, and beating myself up because I hadn’t found a man who loved, respected, and adored me—a man whom I’d be willing to bring home to my children. Therefore, they never got to see what it looked like to have a healthy relationship.
When I began researching this piece, I landed on the usual Internet statistics—bad news and more bad news: Divorce tends to be a cyclical phenomenon. . . . Children model their parents. . . . People from divorce are more likely to divorce themselves. . . . Yada, yada, yada, ad nauseam. Nevertheless, I also found a Pew Research Center study showing that only 46% of children in the United States live in a home with two parents in their first marriage. So unless the world is doomed, single mommying is fairly common and statistics don’t mean squat.
How many of us know happily coupled people who themselves come from broken or single-parent homes? I’d wager to say a lot. The interviews in ESME alone show countless success stories blooming from Solo Mom homes. In fact, there is a popular counterargument that because a child was raised by a Solo Mom, he or she is more apt to choose an appropriate partner.
So I crumpled up the statistics and used them to start a fire in my fireplace. Let’s face it, we all want our children to find love and have healthy relationships. We want them to be happy! But they also need to know that it takes work, and there are many bumps in the road.
So if we, as mothers, have yet to find this relationship for ourselves, then how can we model one for our children?
First of all, we need to come to terms with our own issues—be it divorce, death, or bad luck. If our own view of relationships is based on anger, so will our children’s.
Try to speak positively about your ex, and avoid talking trash about men in general (and if you can’t, don’t talk at all). Speak optimistically about relationships, and your child will look at them in a positive light as opposed to scenarios fraught with negativity and pain. If your littles see you have strong and caring relationships with your friends and watch you act with compassion and kindness even to strangers, your child will learn the appropriate way to view and treat people in general.
If you can’t show intimate affection in a relationship, you show them that respect and love goes beyond romantic relationships.
If you have a son
Find him male role models. Don’t be afraid to ask around. You’d be surprised by how many men are willing to help: teachers, coaches, Boy Scout leaders. My brother-in-law, who never had children, got the Father’s Day gift this year. He’s taught my son how to surf, build, fish, and make a mean hamburger. My son himself reached out to a local surfing legend, who in turn offered my son a summer job and is teaching him how to shape surfboards. This hero told me he was raised by a single mom and knows what it’s like.
Give your boy the female perspective as well. Teach him how to treat women, how to be polite and respectful. Tell him how it feels when a man doesn’t do this. This won’t make him weak. On the contrary, this will make chicks dig him even more. (I know this from my own son—oy vey.) Plus, your future daughter-in-law will thank you.
If you have a daughter
Remember she is your daughter, not your BFF. Don’t share war stories about men (especially stories about her father). You’re the parent. She will glean her overall view of men from your overall view. Also keep in mind that kids have bionic ears. They like listening in on your secret chardonnay chitchat with your friends, so when you have a gaggle of bitter women in your living room, Daughter is hearing that all men are dogs. Save the male bashing for a girls’ night out.
Conversely, don’t sugarcoat what relationships will be like for her. It’s a setup for disappointment. Women are generally hopeless romantics. We want to believe that Brad Pitt’s long lost twin will bump into us at Ralph’s, where we will mutually drop our baskets of blueberries, bend over to collect them, and then bump heads á la any John Cusack movie and fall head over heels. He’ll then adore us, bring us flowers and diamonds, write us songs, and make sweet, sweet love to us with an Academy Award–winning underscore—fade to black. And we all live happily ever after . . . not! Discuss relationships with your daughter in a reasonable and positive manner, but be realistic. Your future son-in-law will thank you.
Overall, it is good for your children to see you demand respect from the men in your life. Date only those who have admiration for you. Let your children see how that looks. And if that isn’t an option, let them see you happy without a relationship—because a significant other is just that: other. This person is not you and, contrary to Jerry Maguire, does not complete you.
My personal tip on raising my children with healthy-relationship role models is . . . TV!
I have a guy friend, well-adjusted and happily married, who was raised by a Solo Mom. I asked him the secret to her success. His answer? Cary Grant. “I learned everything I know about how to treat women by watching Cary Grant movies,” he told me. How about a feisty Katharine Hepburn or Doris Day for your daughter?
I took this advice and turned to The Andy Griffith Show. Andy was a single father, but he taught Opie about love and respect for women as he attracted lovely, strong, and clever females into his Mayberry life. My kids loved the show and still do.
Modern-day television also represents healthy, fairly realistic relationship role models. These relationships experience challenges, mistakes, and misunderstandings, but they are based on deep love and mutual respect. The following is my go-to list:
- Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt on Parks & Recreation
- Jim and Pam on The Office
- Eric and Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights
- Claire and Phil Dunphy on Modern Family
- Mitch and Cam on Modern Family
- Hell, any couple on Modern Family
- Even Becky and Jesse on Full House
These shows teach our kids that in order to have a good relationship with a loving partner, we must support each other, compromise, communicate, listen, adapt, and admit when we are wrong. With these elements, relationships only grow stronger over time.
So do yourself a favor: Stop worrying! Put down the statistics. As long as our children are raised in a positive atmosphere of love, respect, and compassion—in all personal relationships—they will know when it comes along. They will find their way. Show your children that life is not a lonely place. It is, in fact, beautiful—with or without a mate.
Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 20, and William, age 16.
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