Five Foundational Priciples for Single Parents
by Gary Sprague
In Page, Arizona sits the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge. It holds water back from Lake Powell and regulates its flow into the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Our family stopped to visit last summer while we were on vacation. I coaxed my three older kids to walk with me over the bridge.
While on the bridge, God gave me a vision for Single-Parent Family Ministry. On the south rim, I saw hundreds of thousands of single parents with their children at different stages of their “single-parent family journey.” On the north rim, I saw hope and healing from the pain, trouble and tears. I believe this hope and healing can only be found in Christ. Between these two rims, was a great and vast chasm that separates single-parent families from this hope and healing.
The vision God gave me was for the Church to become the bridge that connects the two. I believe that leaders (both paid and volunteer) have a great opportunity to “be the bridge” and walk single parents and their kids from despair to hope and from pain to healing that can only be found through a relationship with Christ.
Living life as a single parent is a journey, and along the way there are markers to chart the course. This article describes five of those markers, when single parents can stop to pause, look at their progress and take certain truths to heart. Leaders who can help single parents implement these life-changing principles will be well on their way to becoming the bridge towards hope and healing. I will present these principles as if leaders were speaking directly to single parents. Jump in and be “the bridge!”
Principle #1: Tell Your Kids the Truth
Kids who live in single-parent or blended families are hurting. They no longer feel like a family. They want their parents to get back together. They’re isolated, alone, without opportunities to talk. They feel like it is their fault, and they desperately need to talk about their feelings. They need to know why and how this all happened to them.
Tell your kids the truth about why they live in a single-parent home! Answer the question, “Why did my mom or dad leave?” If death took a parent away, kids need to know how their parent died. They also need to know the date of death so the kid can commemorate it. If it was a divorce, tell them the reasons for the divorce. The main reason why children of divorce think that it is their fault is because nobody has told them the real reasons for the divorce. If it is a separation, explain to them what is happening and reassure them that they will still be loved and cared for even though the marriage is in limbo. If it is because of a situation where the parents were never married, explain the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy. Maybe their mother or father did not want to be a parent, but it had nothing to do with anything the child did, including being born.
Let’s talk a little bit about the real reasons for divorce, separation or even a never-married situation. It is essential for parents to tell children why they broke up. Reasons like “Mommy and Daddy stopped loving each other” or “We just could not get along any more” just won’t do. I strongly suggest that parents tell their kids about the real reasons, such as: Adultery, Abandonment, Abuse and Addiction.
How do you tell your kids the truth?
Tell them the truth before Aunt Susie does! Every family has an Aunt Susie who tells all. If she gets to your kids before you do, there will be some fall-out in the areas of trust and respect.
Age-appropriate answers. How do you talk to your 4-year-old about adultery? How do you talk to your 8-year-old about it? Don’t use words like “affair” or adultery. They mean little to a young child. You could say, “Mommy or Daddy was pretending to be married to someone else.” They will understand those words.
Timing. Let them ask the questions. Some kids are quiet, and it indicates there may be blocked emotions that you need to recognize and help break through. Give your kids permission to ask questions. The hard questions. Perhaps they’re afraid to ask questions because you’ve gotten angry or cried when they’ve tried previously. Make an appointment to discuss the serious questions they ask if the present time isn’t appropriate – and keep the appointment!
Sometimes kids won’t say what they really want to ask. “I want to go live with Dad!” might mean they’re upset at being disciplined and they don’t feel like they’ve been allowed to spend enough time with the other parent. “I hate you!” doesn’t necessarily mean that. It might be a good time to sit down, put your arm about the kid and say; “You really miss your dad, don’t you? Tell me about it.”
Talking about the former spouse’s behavior with the kids. This is a big one. How you explain to the kids what the other parent did needs to be done non-offensively. You’ll have other opportunities for your raw emotions to come out -- as an adult -- but not in front of the kids. Focus on the spouse’s behavior, not the emotions you feel because of it. The best way to talk about the changes that have happened in the family (or are about to happen) is to have both parents sit down with the kids and tell the same story. If this won’t work, give the former spouse opportunities to “come clean” to the kids before you do it for him or her.
Time and Truth walk hand in hand. Full disclosure! It’s an ongoing discussion. The kids will ask over and over, maybe the same questions, and you need to give more information as time goes on and they mature. Kids need to know who they are. At long last, the truth will win out.
Principle #2: Provide Opportunities for Visitation
If possible, kids need to have a relationship with both birth parents! God designed us to live this way, but there’s sin in the world. Things happen. Kids long to know and have a relationship with both parents. Don’t sabotage that longing because of your own emotions. Kids have the right to have these relationships, and so does each parent.
Relationships are a high value. Don’t use your kids as a weapon against your former spouse by blocking potential opportunities for visitation. Disagreements about issues such as lifestyles, movies, food, bedtimes, discipline or live-in girlfriend/boyfriend might not necessarily be good enough reasons to stop the visits. Get godly counsel to try to resolve these tough issues.
Another value that’s even higher is Safety. Don’t put your kids at risk. Provide for safe situations. The only reason why kids should not visit a parent is because they are at risk of being harmed – abused or neglected. Try supervised visits in order to satisfy the valued needs of both safety and relationship. Be careful to separate out situations that are truly a safety issue with those things that are just outside of your comfort zone. This brings us to a discussion about things that we can and can’t control.
Principle #3: Focus on the Stuff You Can Control
I call this the 80/20 Principle. I see single parents worrying and trying to control everything that goes on at their former spouse’s house when the kids are visiting. The problem with this is that they are wasting their energy, both physical and emotional, that could be better spent on investing into the lives of their children when they have them in their own house. Many single parents spend 80% of their energy trying to change what is happening “over there” and only 20% of what is left as “the leftovers” on their kids. I am suggesting that they switch these around. Spend 20% of your energy on what you can’t change (things that you do not like at your former spouse’s house). Then spend 80% of your emotional and physical energy and resources on investing in the lives of your children (what you can change) when they are with you.
This is easier said than done. Most of the success of this principle has to do with giving up control and allowing God to step in. It may be a lack of faith that you feel you have to control everything. Do we not believe that God cares about our children and that He will take care of them when they are “over there”? Remember, we are not talking about turning our eyes and ears away from protecting our kids from harm (the value of safety). We are talking about the age-old “Serenity Prayer” that many of our mothers had hanging up on our kitchen walls when we were kids…
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Principle #4: Forgive Your Former Spouse
This is probably the most difficult principle to implement. It is also the one principle that, when implemented, will produce the most life change.
You can start by asking your kids for forgiveness! Parents forget that they might need to do that. “I’m sorry for the pain that I have caused you. I did not mean for this to happen, but I know that it hurts. Will you please forgive me?” Don’t get sidetracked into how much more you think that your former spouse is responsible for your child’s pain. Let your former spouse have a similar conversation with the children. Focus on your relationship with your kids and what you are responsible for. When we ask our kids for forgiveness, we give our kids a gift. We pass on to them the final stage of recovery that they might not have known they needed…forgiveness.
Next, your kids need you to model forgiveness by forgiving your former spouse. They need to know that after all the fighting, conflict, tears and anger, forgiveness is possible. Modeling forgiveness to your kids by forgiving your former spouse is a process that may take years, but it all starts with an act of your will. You choose to forgive. Write a letter, pick up the phone, or plan a meeting. Release the bitterness. Your former spouse may not care, but you will find comfort in knowing that you have done the right thing. You’ve followed God’s commandment to forgive; you’ve released a burden from your shoulders, and you’ve given your kids a gift that they will use when they become adults and experience conflict in relationships.
Principle #5: One is a Whole Number
You’ve got to embrace the idea that you are valued as a single parent. God loves you and you are whole in Him. Embrace the idea that God is your spouse and a father to your kids. Psalm 68:5 says that God is a husband to the widow and a father to the fatherless.
Don’t let anyone tell you that all you need is a new spouse! Blending a family is hard work! My advice to you as a single parent is to stay single until your kids are out of the home. Don’t date or get re-married until your kids are grown. I suggest that you find a supportive church where you are viewed as whole and which does not put pressure on you to find a husband. Focus on your kids! They need your time and your energy and your love. Allow God to be your husband and be a father to your kids. Allow the church to be “the bridge” and fulfill James 1:27 which says, “Pure and undefiled religion is to visit widows (single parents) and orphans (kids in single-parent or blended families) in their distress.”
One way of reinforcing the concept that single-parent families are whole and valued is to place single-parent families into the Family Ministry of the church. Make sure that the Family Pastor has a heart for non-traditional families first. You’re not “Single Adults with Kids.” You’re a family that just so happens to be unmarried. You’re not half a family. You don’t have kids growing up in a broken family. You’re a whole family experiencing brokeness.
Living life as a single parent can be extremely difficult, but with the help of leaders in the church coming alongside, the burdens can become lighter. Becoming the bridge for single parents and their children to find hope and healing in Christ is one of the most rewarding acts that leaders can invest themselves in.
© Gary Sprague. All Rights Reserved. Gary Sprague is President of the Center for Single-Parent Family Ministry, an organization dedicated to bringing emotional healing, relational freedom, and spiritual hope to single-parent families. He has a Master’s degree in Social Work and is an Ordained Pastor.
You can contact Gary at the Center for SPFM, P.O. Box 6020, Woodland Park, CO 80866.
E-mail: Phone: 719-687-0515.