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No one who works in parenting education can escape dealing with the subject of divorce and its effects on children.

It’s too simplistic for me to tell you not to have children if you ever plan to divorce. Everybody knows that people change, relationships change, and some marriages are made in hell, not heaven.

But my first bit of advice to all parents is:


A marriage requires CARE, COMMITMENT, and COMMUNICATION. Just about everybody who gets married is in love, so there’s plenty of caring. Everybody starts out thinking marriage is forever, so there’s commitment. But many of us enter marriage without knowing how to communicate. Sure there’s lots of talk during courtship. But we don’t think about how to deal with hurt feelings or disappointments or those treacherous marriage moments when both of us are in a rotten mood.

Some people communicate by NOT TALKING about what’s really on their mind — until they explode in rage. Some people, sometimes without realizing it, use provocative phrases that lead to conflict.

I just came across a book that deals with how to say what’s on your mind, or what has to be said, in the right way. Tongue Fu! — How to Deflect, Disarm, and Defuse Any Verbal Conflict, by Sam Horn (St. Martin’s Press, 1996), was written to help organizations train employees to deal with difficult customers and co-workers. Horn describes Tongue Fu as “a spoken form of self defense — the constructive alternative to giving a tongue-lashing or being tongue-tied.”

Such a book can help you find the right techniques and words to communicate your feelings to your spouse. This in turn can help you “fight right,” so that issues are resolved rather than eternally and painfully rehashed. The family that learns to fight right is better off than the family that avoids conflict and never settles anything.

The fourth “C” is COUNSELING. I’m often asked which is better for the child, discord or divorce? Neither is good for children. If marital discord develops in your home, run — don’t walk — to a marriage counselor before there is more baggage of negativity and anger than the marriage can bear. If I was made Dictator of Families, I would mandate pre-marital and pre-conception counseling to work out potential communication bugs in advance.

If divorce is the best or only solution, protect your children by following the Heins Rules for Divorcing Parents:

NEVER PUT THE CHILD IN THE MIDDLE! Assure the children they will never have to take sides — and mean what you say.

NEVER BAD-MOUTH THE OTHER PARENT. Always refer to your ex-spouse with respect when the children are present. “Your Daddy loves you very much,” is better for the children to hear than “Your Dad is a lousy cheapskate who never gave me enough money!”

Both parents must tell the child repeatedly that:

1) The divorce is NOT THE CHILD’S FAULT.


3) It’s OK TO FEEL SAD AND ANGRY because the family is breaking up. There’s no way that divorce — which has been referred to as “social surgery” — can be painless. Encourage the children to express their feelings. If they don’t talk about it ask them how it hurts and help them deal with the pain.

4) There’s nothing to be ashamed about, the divorce is between the parents. Be sure to help the child tell others about the divorce. Sometimes children are embarrassed and don’t know what words to use to tell their teacher or friends.

5) “You will always be taken care of.” and “We will both love you for always.”

Let the child see where the non-custodial parent is going to live. The child needs to know that both parents will be safe and warm and have a place to live.

The ability to communicate with your child, because sex education is much more than presenting the facts — there must also be an on-going dialogue between parent and child about values.

Help the child’s life be as predictable as possible. Children need to know what will happen to them. If you are going to sell the house, tell them.

Keep lines of communication wide open so together you can always do what is in the best interest of the child.

Don’t squabble in front of the children. Stay civil to each other and “talk nice” to each other. As a matter of fact, even if the marriage is over I recommend counseling. You must be able to communicate about the children post-divorce.

Never use the child to carry messages of your anger or grief back and forth.

Get counseling help for your child if the child has trouble in dealing with the divorce. Children of divorce may exhibit behaviors ranging from denial and indifference to depression, regression, anger, guilt, and problems at school. If these seem to be escalating get help.

Also see the Bruderhof Saving Childhood Forum.