Recently I was given an unpleasant lesson on my number one pet-peeve in co-parenting: complaining about the other parent. For some reason, parents frequently live under the illusion that their children are blind to overt grumblings about former partners. Parents talk under their breath, whisper on the phone, roll their eyes, and make smugly derisive comments in their children’s presence, while pretending that the child sees nothing. Maybe it’s the fact that we raise these children from birth that causes us to imagine them as semi-cognizant beings, but the truth is exactly the opposite. Children know how to read their parents better than anyone. In fact, our survival as a species relies on our ability to be responsive to the adults that care for us from a tiny age. Therefore, our children come wired with nearly telepathic superpowers aimed at discerning tiny shifts in parental actions and reactions.
This fact was made abundantly, painfully, clear to me this past winter when my 19 year-old daughter returned from college for a visit. In spite of the fact that I preach this concept of sheltering our kids from our bad-ex rhetoric on a regular basis, I evidently slipped up because she enthusiastically pointed out my error when I made a disparaging (but funny!) remark about her father.
Why did I make that snarky comment? What was I thinking? As far as I can tell, there are a variety of reasons for this bad behavior. For parents with younger children, it may be that we can’t believe that they are old enough to understand our cryptic comments to our friends. Parents of older children may inadvertently be transforming their relationship with them into a friendship and letting down the parent-child boundary. But a common theme seems to be a deep desire to be seen as the best parent. People are constantly looking for a judge to hear their cases when they’re in conflict. Who makes a better judge than the apparently neutral child? Sure, that sounds messed up and we don’t allow ourselves to think it consciously, but deep down we all feel validated when our child complains to us about the exact issue that made us crazy about our ex. Let’s be honest.
By the way, please don’t fool yourself into thinking that your children don’t notice when you make unpleasant comments in humorously coded language to your friends. That change of tone in your voice is a flashing neon sign to your children, alerting them that something important is about to be said. They know exactly who the “HE” or “SHE” is that you’re trying so hard not to name. If your child is breathing oxygen, s/he has already learned the players and is busy at work uncovering the rules of the game.
What’s the big deal with this, you might ask. Isn’t the child free to discover the faults of the parent? Isn’t that a natural process of growing up? This is true. It’s every person’s right and maybe even responsibility to learn from his or her parent’s mistakes, but the key is that the individual must do it on his or her own. When exposed to negative commentary or reaction by one parent against the other, the child is subtly being asked to take sides. Every child has a developmental need to see his/her parents as ideals. Whether or not they are biologically connected, their parents represent an aspect of themselves. They yearn to love them fully and unconditionally. When an embittered parent shines an unflattering light on the other parent, it’s as if that light is shed on the child’s mirror.
We talk a lot about methods for enhancing our children’s self-esteem. We enroll them in athletics or art programs and foster their academic abilities. But if we truly want our children to have a solid sense of self worth, we must demonstrate respect and appreciation for our former partners.