Parental Spheres of Influence: A Venn Diagram

 

I have written on finding your Tribe before, and one of the reasons they are so important in our current day and age is that your Tribe is seldom composed solely of your biological family members. Ten thousand years ago is a different story, (as we then lived in groups of about 200 and most people have more Facebook Friends than that) but today we look for tribe for the same reasons people banded together then: for survival, to better understand the world around us, and to define our place within it. Family does that today, but they usually tell you who you Ought to Be, according to Tradition, Expectations, and Social Obligations that you as an individual aren’t usually consulted in determining.

Family can be constricting if views don’t align, as they frequently don’t, leading to generations of rebellious acts by children, teenagers, young adults. It is practically a rite of passage to disagree with your parents, and by extension, the socio-political forces that shaped them into who they are.

Ecological systems theory is fascinating, btw. Urie Bronfenbrenner  is one smart cookie. John Bowlby’s summary is worth noting in that link, as well.

Anyway…

I was a really good kid, to the point of being boringly so. I welcome any disagreement on that fact from my own parents; they’re still supportive enough of me to read my blog, despite my utter insistence on candor. 🙂 But I remember, on at least one occasion, where my behavior was met with a phrase: “I hope you have a dozen kids just like you,” a sentiment I was sure was more of a curse than a blessing in the context in which it was given.

Life has given me a series of obstacles lately, and I have been able to face them. Some scared me, some I felt unprepared for or was completely surprised by, some tested me in ways that hurt, but I have found that  (eventually) being honest with myself as well as with those around has been the best course of action every time. Even when friendships crumbled and disintegrated, even in the face of unstable employment, or walking into social circles with established norms that made me uncomfortable, being honest with myself led to making decisions–important decisions– which do effect a larger sphere beyond my personal bubble.

Over the holidays this past winter, I met my current partner’s children. I had put a hard line on the appropriate time frame for that when we met: I didn’t want to meet them for at least 6 months, because I don’t believe it’s ethical to have people just passing through children’s lives. Temporarily being a transient is fun as a young adult, but it is detrimental for children not to have a level of stability in their lives in terms of who is in it. This is one of the reasons we push so hard for equal parental rights in this country. Stability is key for kids, and if one parent is working/traveling all the time, then child rearing falls disproportionally on the responsibility of the other parent.

Now that they’re with us for the summer I get to know them as people on a daily basis and build on the limited time we had over holidays and their “Spring Break.” They get to know that I have their backs, and I get to learn about what makes them tick. Adjusting to a routine where I am responsible for cooking for kids, helping them play catch up with their studies, and serving as emotional mediator and validator have not been as difficult as I had thought they would be. Establishing boundaries and treating one another with respect work worlds better with children than the same approaches do with some adults. Occasionally temper tantrums happen, but after taking a break and stepping away from a problem for a few minutes it’s a lot easier to reassess in a helpful way. Mostly, we’re all just cool.

As someone who has never been interested in having kids of my own, I can fully say that that outlook is actually serving me really well now. Because I scrutinized reproducing for so long, I got to cover lots of hypothetical situations. Some benefit me now, and some of those thought experiments are so far off base that the reality of having the kids here has taught me to relax and go with the flow, as we cannot be prepared for simply everything. If I were “baby crazy” or had my own kids, I wouldn’t be able to give my efforts and attention to my partner’s kids in the same way that I can now. I’m able to be a protective grizzly mama but I’m also able to step back, assess resources and try to fill in gaps as an additional adult concerned for their well-being.  It surprises me how easily adults are expected to be pitted against one another: teachers vs parents, some family members vs others, former partners vs present partners. Just like every other endeavor, groups should be pooling their resources and advocating for those who are affected, not fighting over how their own best interest comes into play while utilizing the marginalized group as pawns.

This article/study gives an overview of just how extensively “outside adult relationships” (meaning both children’s parents as well as other adult figures) can benefit children.

Research finds that the presence of one or more caring, committed adults in a child’s life increases the likelihood that children and youth flourish, and become productive adults themselves. These individuals have been called “natural mentors.”

Additionally, according to science (and the Art of Manliness), fathers are a necessary component in their children’s lives, although too often they are portrayed as “optional.” The linked article covers many reasons  the father’s presence is important, but my favorite is their impact on verbal ability and fluency of the children.

As Paul Raeburn highlights in his book Do Fathers Matter?, recent research suggests that dads actually play just as an important, if not more important, role in the verbal fluency of their children. Professor Lynne Vernon-Feagans and her team conducted a study to measure parental influence on early childhood verbal development. The surprising result from this study was that fathers, not mothers, had much more of an influence on a child’s verbal adeptness.

Vernon-Feagans hypothesizes the reason dads have more of an influence on a child’s verbal development is that because fathers frequently don’t spend as much time with children, they’re not as attuned to their current verbal development as mothers. Consequently, while mothers will use words that the child is familiar with, fathers will use unfamiliar words, thus helping the child broaden their vocabulary and learn new concepts.

This video is very touching in how all the adults are able to support one another after both parents have remarried. It shows parents getting along with step-parents, as opposed to vilifying them to the children, or being jealous of them, although the parents speak very honestly in addressing their awareness of the potential/societal expectation of these kinds of things.

Relationships are multifaceted: the road goes both ways.

You are always responsible for You, whether you agree with the circumstances you find yourself in, or not.

In conclusion, I’ll borrow the words of wisdom from the same Art of Manliness Article:

I know that sometimes parenting can be discouraging. You might think that you really don’t have much of an influence on your kids. I hope these studies and reports have shown you otherwise. Your role as a dad is immensely important. So focus on being the best dad you can be. It’s not enough to just be there. Read to your kids. Get involved at their school. Roughhouse. Encourage them to take risks. Stay fit. These small things have a huge return on investment for the well-being of your children.

And if you’re a mom going through a divorce, know that while it’s natural to want your kids as much as possible, if your husband is a good guy (through an objective lens, not through the lens of the acrimony created by your split), it’s ultimately in your children’s best interest to share custody equally.

 

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