Kids will be kids — and kids will hate their parents, too. According to “Growing Pains” dad Alan Thicke, it might actually be possible to raise a child who doesn’t blame you for everything. In his new book, “How to Raise Kids Who Won’t Hate You: Bringing up Rock Stars and Other Forms of Children,” he offers humorous advice on the art of parenting. Here’s an excerpt.
Chapter 17: Second Families
“If You’re So Cool, Why is Mom Living with Her Trainer?” One thing a cool parent never likes to consider is that the day could come when he or she is a divorced cool parent. If you are ever this unfortunate — breaking up a family is never pretty — it’s then that the cool part must come into play, as in “keeping your cool” and the famous “cooling-off period.”
How Do You Know When It’s Really Over? Divorce is a good clue. Barring that, if she draws a chalk line around your body every time you lie down, odds are she’s not happy.
The D-Word Have you done all you can to save the marriage? This is your child’s only chance at the ideal family unit, and his life will never be the same afterwards, so be very sure before you pull the plug and consign him to a lifetime of divided loyalties and split schedules.
The Child’s Best Interests You may have already blown that, since divorce is seldom in the child’s best interests, no matter how much rationalizing you do to justify your fling. The first thing disillusioned adults promise themselves is that the kids will always come first, and that’s about as easy to do as obeying all Ten Commandments for one calendar year. Public civility is important, but the best-intentioned, most enlightened couples have trouble faking affection for each other once they have made that fateful decision. Insults feel good but accomplish little, so you may want to save your best for e-mail:
“You put the ‘ho’ in ‘home,’ baby.”
“Really? Well you are in the meaning of ‘pollutant,’ the residue caught in the filter of my life.”
“Oh yeah? May you get hit by a bus as you walk through the streets of hell, sweetheart.”
“You need to find yourself? Try looking in the dictionary under ‘selfish, cheating bastard.’”
And So It Goes E-mail may be the best means of communication between you and your ex from now on, because you’ll have a never-ending list of parental decisions to make together involving custody (50-50 or weekends?), holidays (not fair if one gets Christmas and the other gets Martha Stewart’s birthday), and school. My ex wanted to spend $15K on a private school in California so our first-grader could learn Spanish. I pointed out that at public schools, the kids were already speaking it for free. He’s in a private school. Even religious upbringing can become an issue, if, for instance, your kid started out Catholic and your ex marries a rabbi.
These kinds of disagreements are how parents go nuts and attorneys buy vacation homes, so agree on as many terms as possible before involving the lawyers.
Mine’s Bigger than Yours There is no avoiding the subconscious undercurrent of competition, because whether it’s more toys, more trips to the zoo, or more hours of TV or stories per night, you will want to be your son’s confidant or your daughter’s best friend, not second best. The competition cycle could cause you to try harder, spend more, make bad judgments, and ultimately ruin your most important creation. It is often difficult to be a stern disciplinarian because of the ever-present fear that your former spouse is saying “yes” all the time while you’re saying “no.” Sorry, but at times it’s more important to be right than popular.
Explaining What Went Wrong You thought Iraq and Katrina were controversial! See if you and your ex can at least concur as to why you split up so that, when he’s old enough to hear it, your child can live his life with a single interpretation, one story to tell when people ask—which they will. As always, conversations must be age appropriate and evenhanded, minimally judgmental, and painted over with a happy face wherever possible.
“Dude, How’d You Blow It?” To ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself, try to understand what it is about you that people hate — or at least what didn’t work for your mate. Did you book the wrong restaurants? Play too much golf? Bring home lousy friends? Did you cheat? Suffocate? Intimidate? Underestimate?
Give yourself the fitness test. Are you qualified? Are you healed? Rehabilitated? Wiser? Better? Is there a “new and improved” version ready for recycling? Get a reliable emotional mirror and take a cold, hard look to see who you are, determining not only what you need but what you have to offer this time around. Get opinions and “reviews” from friends, maybe even your children. How much time, energy, and capital will you have left after attending to existing responsibilities, such as career, your softball team, your mother, and your kids? Do you value alone time? Remember that marriage changes things. (You’ll probably find yourself dating less.)
Most “previously owned” adults fall into three categories:
1. Those willing to find another relationship.
2. Those who’d rather be widowed or gay.
3. Those who’d rather get poked in the eye with a hot stick hourly.
If a second marriage is in the cards, the child is about to have a new family. If you and your ex both remarry, suddenly the kid has three families to deal with — the original and two offshoots — not to mention the multiple sets of step-grandparents, semi-uncles, pseudo-aunts, and quasi-cousins. The potential for confusion is staggering when Christmas can only be arranged by an air traffic controller.
Congratulations if you have recovered and feel strong and secure enough to plunge ahead, undaunted, unafraid of a second try. Or a third. People on their fourth should be daunted.
The Dream Version Who Wants to Marry My Dad? That TV gem got it right about one thing: the next choice must be done by committee. The casual dating experiments do not have to be detailed to the kids, and one-night stands at your house with strangers from the gym are a no-no. The first time he or she visits could possibly be explained away as an act of charity for a homeless strumpet, but you’ll need answers when a relationship gets more serious.
He or she must fit in with your child, which is not to say that the kid gets to pick: the qualities we seek in a mate are not necessarily the same ones he admires. Find a way to make the child feel he’s in the loop by at least informing him at regular steps along the way about what could become a new household arrangement.
In many cases the child will resist, not wanting to share you or your house or, worse yet, not liking the proposed new cohabitant. (“OK, this has been fun, now when is she leaving?”) Monitor your child’s reactions to these news bulletins. Throwing up when she enters the room or lurking around your gun collection are sure signs that it’s not going well.
If you’re freshly on the market, there’s a chance you have a teenager who’s also single and looking. This is one of life’s perversely curious coincidences that you’ll just have to deal with — offering advice and establishing boundaries without being a total, transparent hypocrite.
The Wish List Respect your kids’ feelings about the adult company you seek, but hold firm to your personal, well-earned Dos and Don’ts list for ending Mr. or Ms. Righter Than The Last One. Here’s mine.
- Where to look. Remember where and how you met the ex — then look elsewhere. The new mate will want to stake out her own territory, and both of you will be better off with fewer “been there, done thats.” Dating services specialize in finding compatible partners, and judging by your last choice, you need help.
- Compatibility. If she likes to jog at 6 a.m. and your first cigarette is scheduled for 7:30 a.m., your soulmate search may not be finished.
- Kid Rock or Bach? Try to start with things in common, such as music, or you’ll hate what gets programmed on the car radio, not to mention the person in the passenger seat.
- Sex — every day or once a month? Remember that problem from the first marriage?
- The package deal. Assuming no one’s perfect, go for overall compatibility. It’s like this, ma’am: If he scores a 6 in household repairs, 7 in money management, 8 in bed, and 9 in family values, that’s 30 out of a possible 40 points — a better bet than three 10s and a 0 in family values. And what will you change to score higher on his list?
Dating Do-Overs Dating is a complicated science, and there are few places to look for reliable advice. If your kid chooses you as a source, maybe you can teach him so he doesn’t make your mistakes. I’ve had some lousy dates, and I’ve learned the following things from them:
- Get references. These can include phone numbers of the last hearts she ripped out and stomped on, guys who found her impossible to live with and were tired of putting up with her crap. And what will she learn about you if she does the same?
- Never faint at a Halloween party at the Playboy Mansion. I did, and it tends to embarrass your date and make you look wimpy. It’s a long story (not that I’ve shown any reluctance to tell those so far), so suffice it to say it involved a long plane ride, sleep deprivation, dehydration, stress — the standard excuses — and that I passed out in the middle of the circular driveway in front of a crowd of people who were waiting for their vehicles and had no time for a dead man. Young punk sitcom actors were stepping over my horizontal body and pointing down in recognition. “Hey! That’s Dr. Seaver!” before stepping over me and walking away to make small talk with the body-painted party favors. I was the centerpiece among centerfolds. To make it more bizarre, this was costume night — I was a hockey player and my date was Jessica Rabbit — which made for a colorful couple at the hospital. Yes, hospital. The ambulance arrived, and I was soon hooked up to an IV, an ignominious first for Playboy guests. The message: Many women prefer “strong and competent” to “prone and lifeless.”
Significant Other? There’s a romantic term. This was a phrase coined by the same guy who came up with “Bloody Show” for that childbirth spectacle. Significant Other? How about Incredible Relief, Viable Alternative, Palpable Paramour, or Substantial and Recurrent Codependent Elective? “Honey” or “Sugar” may still work, depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you grew up on.
“Who’s that woman on your lap, Dad?” How many times did Gary Hart hear that?
One of the challenges in second families will be the question of what to do with memorabilia from the first family. When a new mate enters the picture, he or she won’t be comfortable with a lot of photos around the house or in scrapbooks that include your ex. Keep in mind, however, that the child may be comforted by the missing mother or father’s presence, even if only in a token photograph — consider placing them in the child’s bedroom.
For the living room, I know it’s tough to part with that shot of you and the ex with Barry Bonds or Jessica Biel, but who said relationships didn’t require sacrifice?
Tanya drew the line at the wedding albums of the two previous bosses. My argument was that those collections included family members, some deceased, whom I wanted to remember as they were in those days. The broader “child’s best interests” argument is that kids deserve to see what their birth parents looked like in happier times that somehow explain their own origins.
Second Wedding Protocol Distribute responsibilities fairly. You may have multiple candidates for ring boy, flower girl, maid of honor, best man, etc., but God forbid the daughter from the first marriage has a bigger assignment than the son from the second marriage when she officiates at the third marriage.
Will You Have More Kids? If I do it again, watch for me to be one of those hoary old actors with a baby at sixty and a teenager at 75. I don’t want to be teaching my son to drive just when they’re revoking my license. I don’t want my wife changing two sets of diapers if one of them is mine. Nevertheless, if your kids are what you’ve lived for, the delight of your life, these are the kinds of choices you make.
I’ll keep you posted on the Web site.
Why Younger Women? The age factor will be one consideration when making choices appropriate to your child’s sensibilities. “Dating” is a creepy concept for a middle-aged man, since most of the women available for communing are younger than me, but so are some countries, like Namibia and Belarus. One girl told her mother she was dating me, and her mother said I should be carbon-dated. I don’t want to be on the Seniors Dating Tour, and I hate being in clubs where I feel like the chaperone. The last dance I learned was the twist.
What is the appeal of younger women? (A reminder that “younger” is a relative term. If you’re 50, you’re younger and I love you for it!) In fact, the so-called “cougar” demographic is ideal … the package: looks, smarts, independence. The questions arise in the May-December age spread. Such as …
a) “What do you talk about?” “Me.”
b) Young women don’t know any better, because they haven’t been jerked around, disappointed, and embittered by guys like us. Sorry, I don’t presume to speak for you, but most haven’t seen our B.S. before and probably can’t even imagine some of it.
c) With any luck, it will take them longer to spot our faults — we have decades of experience trying to cover up our inadequacies — and that edge in years buys us time to work on the stuff they’ll hate.
d) Younger women don’t have baggage. And I don’t mean kids—I would never call my sons baggage. Mortgages and someone else’s health plans are baggage. And you might have an ex who’s a regular Samsonite outlet. And speaking of bags …
e) If I wanted to feel a saggy ass, I’d grab my own. The May-December thing may seem superficial, but some of us can be shallow on many levels, not just looks.
f) Young girls don’t have lawyers yet!
On a less facetious note, an unfair trend of age-ism still exists in romance. We teach our kids to be open-minded, so we profess to be blind to racial, religious, financial, and ancestral disparities in encouraging couples to couple. Why not drop the age-gap prejudice, too, if it works for the two incurable romantics involved?
Humor, Now More than Ever If marriage requires a sense of humor to enjoy, surely divorce requires a sense of humor to survive.
“My ex was a great housekeeper. We had two houses — she kept both of them.” –Martin Mull
Other words of wisdom:
- Marriage is when a man finds out what kind of fellow his wife would have preferred.
- Marriage is like golf — it looks easy but takes a lot of balls.
- Marriage is the number one cause of divorce.
- Half of all marriages end in divorce. The rest end in death.
- Marriage? If you want something that lasts a lifetime, get herpes.
- You want magic? Date Siegfried and Roy. (I hope he’s feeling better.)
- “My ex said I was not her type. I considered that a compliment.”
- “She thought it a plus that she was honest and didn’t hold things in. Personally, I wish she would have.”
- “Happily married” may be an oxymoron for cynics, but it’s one of life’s worthy goals, right up there with tighter abs and a clean prostate exam.
My parents were married 43 years. I’d like to do that, too — at least cumulatively.
Reprinted with permission from “How to Raise Kids Who Won’t Hate You: Bringing up Rock Stars and Other Forms of Children” (Sterling & Ross Publishers) by Alan Thicke.