8 Things Great Single Parents Do Differently (Than Their Own Parents)

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

In a culture where parents are bombarded with messages about how to be a good parent, it’s no wonder that many are left feeling dazed and beleaguered.

Single parenting makes intense demands on us and requires a vast array of interpersonal skills, yet we have little or no formal education to help us prepare. Most parents learn parenting methods from their own parents – some are accepted and others cast off.

Well intended but clueless, my parents never learned the art of successful co-parenting after their divorce. As a result, they failed to set a good example of effective parenting and collaboration. When I became a single parent myself, I began searching for tools to help guide me through the challenges.

Now that I’ve been a parent for over three decades, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my quest to be a competent parent has not lessened over the years – even after I remarried. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t grow up with a healthy template to follow, so I’m on an endless search. But I’ve made good progress with incorporating models that have helped me to be a more successful parent. Fortunately, I have a close relationship with all of three my children – who tend to seek me out when they have a bad day or a setback.

Adopting a forgiving mindset has also allowed me to let go of the past, forgive my parents for their mistakes, and to deal with their shadow more effectively. Whenever I find myself stuck in the past or recreating one of my parents negative patterns – such as issuing ultimatums – I stop myself in my tracks and shift gears to a more positive parenting approach.

The good news is that it’s possible to be raised in a divorced and/or chaotic family and become a competent, good enough single parent. Many parents do this because they had good models to follow. However, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally. Developing and maintaining a successful relationship with your children is a skill that can be learned with patience and persistence regardless of your own background.

8 Tips for Successful Single Parenting in the 21st century:

1. Spend time with your children. Nothing builds your children’s self-esteem better than spending face-to face time hanging out, playing games, going for walks, etc. Be sure that any screen time you share with your kids is used as a time to connect and exchange information.
2. Share at least four meals a week. Eating meals together can encourage good communication and sharing of day to day events and experiences. Turn off electronic devices to ensure eye contact and good listening skills during meals. This may be a challenge for a busy single parent. But you might enjoy a leisurely breakfast or lunch on weekends – even it means ordering pizza.
3. Play with your kids. When your children are young be sure to get down on the floor and interact with them. Stack blocks and build legos. Let your imagination soar while you play puppets, dolls, or with action figures. Older children may like to do puzzles together, play cards, or board games. Be sure to make it special time without the distractions of TV or phones.
4. Take time to chat with them. Oftentimes the best chats I’ve had with my kids have been on the way somewhere in my car. Other opportunities might be while you are watching a TV show or movie; or going for a walk together. Be sure to model good listening skills.
5. Practice tolerance. Accept that they are not you and respect their need for individuation. This might be acted out in clothing choices, hair styles, choice of friends, or interest in school or activities. Let your children know that while you might not always like their choices, you love and accept their decisions – as long as they are safe and respectful of others.
6. Model forgiveness. Adopting a forgiveness mindset can help both you and your children to get out of the chronically, angry mode and become healthier. Teach your kids to let go of toxic anger and to take responsibility for their actions. After all, forgiveness is as much for them as the transgressor. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you forget – the person simply has less power over you. Your children will be grateful to be given the gift of a forgiving mindset. Research presented at a 2011 meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine demonstrated that people with HIV who practiced genuine forgiveness toward a wrongdoer had higher CD4 cell percentages.
7. Respect their boundaries. Give your children plenty of affection yet the space they need to grow and develop. You can remain connected yet allow your children the gift of becoming independent people with their own thoughts, emotions, and desires. Children aren’t carbon copies of their parents and need to be accepted and nurtured for their unique talents, interests, and personality traits. If they remind you of your ex, show gratitude that they may have inherited good qualities from both of you.
8. Model love and affection yet set limits. Encourage your children to be independent but still place limits and controls on their actions. Authoritative parents are loving and affectionate with their children. They show pleasure and support in response to their children’s prosocial behavior. Extensive give-and-take is encouraged but the parent makes the final decisions.

Rather than using punitive approaches, competent single parents use love, reason, and logic to guide their interactions with their children. As a result, their children have confidence, self-control, and show resiliency in the face of adversity.

Being thankful for what you have in your life is such a powerful way to help you love and appreciate everything around you. Even on my worst days I remind myself that there is ALWAYS something to be thankful for. Each night before you go to sleep, think of three things that you are grateful for. Drift off to sleep with a spirit of gratitude in your heart.

In closing, with self-awareness, time, and patience, you can begin to visualize the kind of life you desire with your children. Crafting a new story for your life means not allowing your parents’ divorce, style of parenting, or unhappiness to define who you are as a person. Successful parenting includes building relationships based on mutual respect, love, and trust. Remember to be gentle with yourself and others on your journey.

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome The Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”