Too Much Info
How much of our personal lives should our children be privy to? This question surfaced during a conversation with a friend about the complicated family constellations the modern child faces today.
We spoke about how some parents feel it their duty to involve their children in their marital conflicts by regaling them with sordid details of their spouse’s transgressions. They tell their little children about the woman daddy left mommy for, or the man mommy left daddy for, plus all the gory details in between. I espouse truth-living, but draw the line at exposing our children to information they are not ready for because they are too young, or simply because the information is inappropriate for any child. As parents, we should try and meet our children where they are in their development. This means we do not burden them with complex adult emotions they are incapable of processing.
In any family situation, the child’s health and well-being should be at the top of everyone’s list. Adults must cast their grievances aside—petty and painfully real—to make sure the children are protected from, rather than dragged into, the chaos. We do not lay our emotions on them. We do not give them food to feed any form of hatred, anger, bitterness or resentment that was not theirs to begin with. It is cruel for us to heap our misery on them. They carry their own pain from everything already going on in the family, though the deep hurt has probably taken on a different form like nightmares or tantrums.
As much as we are right (or think we are), we cannot put them in a position where they feel they have to choose one parent over the other, thanks to all the unsolicited information we give them. Even if we tell ourselves that’s not our intention, casting our ex-spouse in a negative light already labels him “bad” and what child would choose that? As they grow older, children will be able to discern for themselves and make their own judgments about the weaknesses and strengths of their parents based on their own experiences of them. It is not fair to manipulate that, especially if the child is so little and full of love, as all healthy children are. Why destroy that precious gift? Why set them on the path of division so early in life? As parents, we must allow our children to develop their own feelings and make every effort not to impose our own.
We keep forgetting that the lesson we all need to learn is love. It’s the lesson every personal trial aims to impart. This doesn’t mean pretending the unfaithful spouse is perfect. Of course not. But it does mean making an effort to find a true space of respect for one another despite the circumstances. Unless the spouse has threatened the life of both mother and child, that child will continue to spend time with both parents and should be able to feel safe and loved in their company.
An underrated and hardly spoken of gift of estrangement is the newfound space to see your spouse as a human being again. When he was your spouse he was just that and he failed and hurt you, but once he is out of your life, you can begin to see him as human—no longer just the offending party– and allow him the flaws that may have wounded you deeply. From that space, a new kind of respect and love can be born. It doesn’t kill the pain, especially if he continues to hurt you, but it does give you an authentic space of respect that you can share with your children. You do not have to pretend. There is always that space between two people and it is easily found if we can find it in our hearts to release our negative emotions.
There was love between you before and from there your children were born. That brand of love may no longer be true today, but it certainly was before. Even if we have failed them, the most valuable lesson we can give our children is our ability to part ways without losing respect and love for another human being—a person who is no longer your spouse but will always be their parent.
Too much information can be just that. Everywhere today we are being forced to look into everyone’s backyards, but more information doesn’t necessarily mean more truth. It’s just more details. That is the kind of “more” that is not necessarily helpful and can even cause deeper damage.
A wise woman told me that in meeting our children where they are, we should refrain from formulating ready answers for questions they might bring forward because it may take away from what is truly being asked at the moment. We should not offer information unless asked and then answer only in the simplest terms: “Why did daddy leave?” “He needs to be alone.” “Why?” “It helps mommy think (or feel) better”. “Will he come back?” “I don’t know, honey” (if it’s true at the time) or “Not to live here but you can see him any time you like (if that is true). If the child is not satisfied with the answer, he will keep asking and you must keep your answers true, objective, simple and respectful. Most of the time, if you have answered simply and with love, the child will happily move on.
It is our attachment to information that makes us feel that perhaps we are not explaining enough, but little children are not looking for details. They are not looking for intellectual discourse. This only teaches them to be precocious and clever with words but it doesn’t address their feelings. When their parents separate, they want reassurance that their world has not been robbed of love, just like that. They do not need to hear more than they are asking.
Later on, perhaps when they are teenagers, they will want details but again we have to meet them where they are and make sure that we answer with respect for all parties. How much do they need to know? I don’t think there is a clear answer to that but I think it safe to speak only of our side of the story because it is the only part we truly own.
As they become young adults, more mature in their thinking and feeling life, and are able to process their thoughts and emotions, the time might come for more intellectual discussion, but only then. Children cannot choose what to filter out. They take everything into the very depths of their beings. As their parents, we have to protect and respect that, nurture them and let them be.
I can’t help but feel that a child who is told one parent is bad also feels a part of him must be flawed. Children feel so much a part of their parents because they are. Their parents are their world. To be told so early that one parent wronged the other this way or that, did this and that horrible thing and hurt another beloved parent, cannot be healthy for a child who is still finding his way in the world—a child who needs to feel strong and whole within himself. We must stop treating our children as if they were little adults. They are not. There is a reason they are children for as long as they are and we have to remember to honor that and become adults worthy of their love.
What’s important is that we give them the truth. It doesn’t mean we give them front row seats to the melodrama we can’t even get our heads around. We do not have to introduce them to the concept of immorality. We do not speak ill of another or worse, label him or her something negative: coward, jerk, womanizer, liar…you get the picture. We give them what is true at the time without the messiness of our own, often unclear emotions. It is the best we can give them. Every family drama is difficult to wade through, but if we take the time to listen to our children with an uncluttered heart, we will learn to meet them with love.
For our children, we must take a deep breath and take the high road. A failed marriage is painful for everyone and recovery often feels impossible, but speaking ill of ex-spouses to our children only hurts them deeply. That kind of behavior sets an example of bitterness and hatred—the very foundation for the kinds of crimes that bring humanity to its knees. I came across one of my favorite passages just the other day and I thought it most fitting for today’s piece:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backwards nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Girbran
We are our children’s chosen guardians. Let us remember what it means to be their light during times of darkness. May we be worthy of the task by striving to be examples of love, forgiveness and respect through life’s most painful trials.