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Am I Doing Okay?: Five Concepts That Define Single Parent Success

By Diane C. Shearer, M.A.

I regularly teach courses to single and divorcing parents, and I estimate that the most frequently asked question is "How can I be sure I'm doing everything I need to do for my kids?" There seems to be quite a bit of anxiety about whether or not parenting alone is good enough. My pat answer is usually this: trust your instincts and trust your love for your kids. Although that seems oversimplified, I truly believe that most parents know what they need to do – and absent a mental health issue or personality disorder – a parent's guiding love is usually enough. However, in case single parents still need affirmation, I offer the following five concepts as a guide. If your children grow into adulthood with these basic abilities or values, parents can breathe a sign of relief about whether or not they have done an adequate job. The real challenge is in determining what you must do now to foster these concepts in your children. Let's look at them each to find out.

1. Self-Discipline
This concept fosters a healthy sense of control, confidence, independence, self-worth and a positive work ethic. A child learns self-discipline by having parents who set appropriate boundaries, have consequences when rules are broken, rewards when rules are followed, regular chores so kids feel part of the family, and who follow-through with consistency and predictability. When parents fail to provide these, children may experience as adults the feelings of being out of control of their lives, a sense of entitlement, lack of confidence, poor self-esteem, irresponsible decision-making, and job difficulties.

2. Empathy
This concept fosters a healthy sense of security, a realistic view of the world, positive interpersonal relationships, ability to forgive self and others, and a healthy balance of giving and receiving. A child learns empathy from parents who allow children to fail and learn from their failures with loving support. Parents who acknowledge their children's feelings as healthy and normal teach kids first-hand that it feels good to know someone understands their human experience. On the other hand, parents who ignore or punish their child for having certain feelings, or who unrealistically praise or build-up their children to feel better than their peers, teach kids a confusing set of rules about their place in the world. Adults who did not have parents who created an environment of empathic responses, may be self-centered, detached, have difficulty relating to others in relationships, and may be afraid of commitment or healthy vulnerability to friends or partners.

3. Resourcefulness
This concept fosters creativity, industriousness, healthy feelings of independence, a sense of self-control, and promotes good social skills. Children learn resourcefulness by having parents who encourage them to do for themselves, with positive parental supervision. For example, a parent who closely supervises a science project, offering positive encouragement along the way and giving a child ideas and choices about how to approach a project – but who does not do the project for the child – is fostering resourcefulness. Kids who learn to be resourceful will be much better prepared to navigate the adult world, will feel comfortable asking questions, discovering options, and networking with people to be successful providers for themselves and their families. Children who do not learn this may have trouble as adults making good choices, living independently, and setting and achieving life goals.

4. Perseverance (Faith)
This concept fosters patience with self and others, ability to keep going in the face of adversity, healthy coping skills in dealing with negative emotions, and the ability to be content in a variety of circumstances. Children who grow up with parents who model perseverance and faith learn that life isn't always fair, but our response to life is what determines our happiness. In my experience, this is a concept that is best taught by modeling more than with words. Without this special kind of modeling, kids are likely to approach their own adult decisions and circumstances with a sense of fear, anger, depression or negativity. Single parents, especially, have a unique opportunity to model this value as they navigate some difficult terrain with dignity, respect and a strong faith in themselves and/or religious beliefs.

5. Purpose
This concept fosters a sense of belonging and significant place in the world, a healthy self-esteem, and a desire to give back to others based on unique talents and gifts. Kids who grow up feeling a sense of purpose about their lives can enter adulthood with a passion for a specific vocation, religion, civic duty, social issue, or any number of life-changing experiences. This can be achieved by helping kids discover their gifts and talents, usually by trial and error, as they go through childhood. A strong sense of family also contributes to a sense of purpose. Extended family members and other non-family friends can help single parents in this regard. Adults who did not have parents who encouraged passion or interests are prone to feeling lost, insignificant, poor self-esteem, disconnected and apathetic. Kids who get involved in gang activity, for example, are hungry for a sense of community and belonging. Parents have a responsibility to their children to help them feel they are an important part of something special (like a family, community of faith, ethnic group or cultural experience).

In short, single parents can feel assured they are "doing okay" if they have a consistent plan of discipline in place, encourage and validate their child's feelings about real situations, teach them how to do for themselves, model faith and perseverance, and help kids discover their gifts, talents and passion for life. Many of these concepts are abstract and may not come natural to you if you were not raised with them yourselves. So analyze each area and make a list of what you feel you are currently doing well and what areas you may need to work a little harder on to achieve. Chances are, you will find you are doing pretty well because, as I said before, you tend to trust your loving instincts. If you do need help, however, don't hesitate to ask for assistance from a family member, friend or counselor. Being single does not mean you have to approach your parenting alone. In fact, asking for help and facing the task with faith and confidence will model some of the above values that will determine your child's success.

Diane Chambers Shearer is a divorce mediator and parent educator in Atlanta, Georgia. She is author of Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families (Fairview Press, 1997) and publishes The Peaceful Co-Parent, a quarterly newsletter for divorce parents. For ordering information, visit her web site at NoFight.com

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