Recently a popular Jewish weekly magazine featured a story depicting the life of a young boy whose parents were divorced. Each parent had re-married, establishing new families. Their shared custody of this son, and he spent substantial time with each of his parent’s new families. Giving a voice to the child of divorce was the intention of the story. It highlighted the distress children feel as well as the confusing messages they often receive from the adults in their lives.
In my opinion the writer did a good job at describing the child’s confusion and pain and pointing out how seemingly innocent comments or actions by the adults in his can have tremendous negative outcome. Seeing the parent’s actions through the eyes of their son was painful to read, especially for those of us who have gone through the experience of divorce while raising children.
In a tongue in cheek manner the author reflected on this young boy’s life, describing him over and over as such a “lucky boy” as he was being bounced around from parent to parent, learning how to deal with step-siblings and extended family members on all four sides of his now blended family.
There were many good points throughout the telling of this boy’s story, but the pinnacle of the story for me having gone through similar experiences while sharing custody of my stepchildren, was when this boy felt “lucky” that his teacher understood why his homework assignment was not completed over vacation. The teacher “knew” the child had divorced parents and although he returned to school without completing his assignment, the boy still received the same prize as the boys who had completed their work. The story did include the fact that there had been other boys in the class who did not fulfill their responsibility and therefore did not receive a prize, but since their parents were married they did not have a valid excuse. This young boy clearly understood that his special treatment was due to his family situation.
Most people reading the story would probably concur that the teacher was trying to go out of his way to be kind and generous to this young boy; he felt sorry for his circumstance and wanted him to feel good. Why should his student be punished because his now divorced parents could not get along well enough to communicate about their child’s needs and work together on a plan to meet those needs?
Certainly there are some people whose reaction would be “wow, what a great teacher, how kindhearted and understanding.” Wouldn’t we all want such a sensitive caring person educating our children? That may have been my reaction had I not lived with the results of this type of “kindness” and “understanding” for over 16 years now. In many ways my adult stepchildren are paying the price for all the “chesed” they received as children and trust me, it has been extremely costly for all of us.
Throughout their pre-school, elementary, and for most of their high school years, my stepchildren lived with their single mother in what can be described as an ultra orthodox, chessed oriented community. This is a community that takes chesed seriously. They go out of their way to help those people that they determine to be “in need.” Certainly the community norms would dictate that a single mother struggling to raise her two children, seemingly on her own, would be considered well within the parameters of deserving assistance and chessed from the community.
Chesed is an admirable trait and certainly we should all do our best to think of others and extend ourselves with love and kindness, especially to those who are less fortunate or going through a difficult time in their lives. Most of us have given and have also received chesed at various stages in our lives. However, from my family’s experience, there are times when chesed can be misguided, and even though it may be done with the best of intentions, the outcome is not always beneficial to the recipient.
Chesed should be something that will potentially help the individual, not hinder them or stifle their progress in life. Suppressing their ability to mature and grow through the normal stages of development is exactly how I view much of the kindness my stepchildren received growing up. The chessed extended to them robbed them of age appropriate challenges and responsibilities throughout their formative years. Fortunately my stepson had many wonderfully kind rebbeim and teachers, unfortunately they gave him a “free pass” simply because they felt sorry for him.
Homework not completed, no problem; bar mitzvah lessons missed, understandable. Even with failing grades, my stepchildren were permitted to advance in school, year after year. Treats, gifts, special day trips, free summer camp and rewards given but not earned were all part of everyday life for my stepchildren well into their teen years. Like most lessons learned in childhood, these “lessons” have stuck and shaped who they are today. These experiences have set the stage, trained and educated them. They are now faced with a tremendous struggle to “catch up” in order to develop into mature responsible adults.
It is a widely accepted “truth” that children of divorce will encounter hardship and difficulties in their lives. I do not deny that there is suffering and often lifelong challenges associated with being a child whose parents for one reason or another were unable to navigate the ups and downs associated with creating a peaceful loving home together. That being said, it is my opinion that more than the actual breakdown of their parents marriage, the attitudes and reactions post-divorce by everyone involved, including those on the peripheral of the situation, is what exacerbates the issues which can create serious long term problems for these children, problems that jeopardize the children’s ability to cope in the future.
Divorce rates are on the rise nationally including within the Orthodox community, albeit at a slightly lesser rate. Therefore it is no longer unusual for several children in a particular class to have separated, divorced or remarried parents. In the name of “chesed” will they all now get a “free pass”? Looking towards their future, would it not serve the child better to teach him or her coping skills that will assist him or her later on in life?
Obviously, it would be in the best interest of everyone if parents were able to put their differences aside for the sake of their children, and figure out a positive, productive way to co-parent them. Sadly, many divorced couples fall short of that goal, at least on the onset when everything is fresh and new. That is where those on the next tier of support have an opportunity to step up and help these children acquire the necessary tools they normally gain during childhood and adolescence. Regular, age-appropriate challenges and responsibilities, disappointments and personal accomplishments are the framework that allows children to gain the confidence and self esteem which are necessary to become successful adults.
If parents are able to meet their co-parenting responsibilities, the community at large will not see dysfunctional behavior that prompts the inappropriate amounts of chesed being deployed. If there is a need for chesed I challenge the givers to have a plan, to think long-term and not simply concern themselves with how the receiver feels in the moment.
If I could give the “teacher” some advice, I would suggest spending a few moments with the child before the school break discussing the assignment and explaining which portion of the assignment he would be responsible for should the circumstances at home be too overwhelming or too stressful for him to complete the entire workload. He would then be rewarded for meeting a goal based on his personal situation. He would still be held responsible for what he could reasonably be expected to accomplish, instead of a free ride. At some point the children have to embrace their new reality and move ahead in life regardless of the fact that their parents divorced; misguided and inappropriate degrees of chesed hinders their ability to do so.
About the Author: Yehudit welcomes and encourages input and feedback on issues relating to the Blended Family and can be reached at email@example.com
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