My parents recently celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary. While marveling at their marital longevity and thinking about the Passover holiday, it occurred to me that there are lessons to be learned from this particular spiritual event. Passover is a holiday marked with many customs and rituals. Among them is the telling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt during the holiday meal, which took place on Monday and Tuesday of this week. It is customary for the leader at the dinner table to engage conversation with everyone in a question and answer fashion, encouraging children to participate, while telling many stories throughout the night. At one point during the evening, the leader tells the story of The Four Sons, who were all very different and who each had questions about this special night. One by one, each son asked the leader about the customs they were learning, stories they were hearing, and rituals they were performing:
The Wise Son asked a very detailed question, demonstrating his interest and desire for a satisfying answer;
The Wicked Son asked his question defensively, challenging the traditions and rituals, and why he should even care about them;
The Simple Son asked about all of the symbolism he witnessed during the meal, wanting to learn and understand more about their meanings; and
The Son Who Is Too Young to Know What to Ask was gently encouraged by his parents to simply be interested in what was happening around him.
The leader explains that while each of the Four Sons were experiencing the same rituals and customs at dinner, each would interpret what was going on around him differently. Therefore, it would be important to respond to each of the inquiries from each son differently, with patience and understanding.
And so, too, is the way in which our children experience and interpret their parents' divorce. Multiple children from the same household, witnessing the same disputes, and experiencing the same events, will often internalize and react dramatically differently. While we may not be able to categorize the personalities of our children into the simplistic "wise, wicked, simple and too young" traits, we can appreciate the differences in our children, and can adjust how we interact with them accordingly.
Consider this: Parents have been divorced for two years and have 50/50 time-sharing, alternating one-week on/off at each home. During this time, the son and daughter have seemingly happily packed their suitcases every Sunday afternoon, and switched houses. One day, however, while packing his suitcase, the son unexpectedly burst into tears. "I'm tired of going back and forth. No one ever asked me what I wanted. I don't like living out of a suitcase. I never asked for this divorce, and I don't want to have to choose between living with my mom or dad." No one ever asked me what I wanted. Sometimes as adults, we're so focused on our own lives, that we forget the impact our divorce has on our childrens' lives, and we forget to give them an opportunity to ask their own questions. There are many questions children want answered about their parents' divorce. Some of the more common questions (and how to respond) are as follows:
Where will I live? Will I have to change schools?
For the young child, your response should try to satisfy fears that you won't be together anymore. Set expectations that you will attend as many special events as possible, that you are interested in what he/she is doing, and that the divorce will not affect how you feel about him/her. For the older child, listen to his/her concerns about the living arrangements, and provide some flexibility whenever reasonable and possible.
Who wanted the divorce? Is it my fault?
Assure all children, regardless of age, that the divorce has nothing to do with anything they said or did. Reassure their feelings of guilt that their behavior caused the divorce. Explain that it takes two people to marry and two people to divorce, and that who initiated the divorce is unimportant. For the older children, who may be searching for more specific answers, give them a forum to ask questions, providing appropriate responses without maligning the other parent. When necessary, engage a family therapist or counselor to participate in sessions where there exists a safe platform and environment to address his/her concerns.
When will I be able to see Mom/Dad?
There is nothing more important for a child than keeping the lines of communication wide open between parents. No matter how much you detest your spouse, your children must never feel like they have limited or no access to the other parent. Encourage daily phone calls, allow for mid-timesharing visits, and force yourself to be as flexible as reasonably possible. Your child's well-being depends upon it.
Will you still come to see me at sports/school play/recitals?
Just say, "YES!" Make every effort to maintain the norm for your child, recognizing that you can't be everywhere all the time. Set expectations for your child to minimize disappointment. If you can't be there, explain the reasons (not blaming the other parent, of course).
Though the divorce is about you and your spouse, for the egocentric child, the concerns are completely focused inward... what will happen to ME? Just like the leader of the Seder, it is our responsibility as parents to tell each child, separately and in a way he/she will understand, what the divorce means to him/her. It is our responsibility to tell them the "story," of the divorce in a way that they will understand. It is our responsibility to encourage them to ask questions about what they see, hear and do, and provide responses as openly and as honestly as possible.