Expert: How Parents Can Step Up Their Games

Cpl. Chelsea Flowers Anderson/Marine Corps

Monday was National Single Parent's Day. How did you celebrate?

Since it was on a Monday, if you are a single parent, you probably celebrated by going to work.

Womp. Womp.

To tell the truth, I hadn't known until a couple of weeks ago that there was a National Single Parents Day, even though I was raised by a single parent and even though it's apparently been a thing for most of my life.

According to my smartest friend -- who I like to call "Google" -- President Reagan instituted a proclamation back in 1984 designating March 21 as a day to honor parents who are doing it on their own. (That's eight full years before Dan Quayle made his infamous "Murphy Brown" comments, for anyone tracking.)

In my opinion, Reagan should have designated that the holiday occurs on a weekend so that single parents could at least have a shot at sleeping in, but what do I know? It does make me happy for my mom to know that the proclamation came while she was deep in the single parenting trenches -- but also kind of sad because when I asked her about it this week, she said she'd never heard of it either.

Probably because she was too busy doing everything to notice.

But because there is a National Single Parents Day, a very nice public relations guy wrote to offering up an interview with an expert on single parenting. And since single parenting has a lot in common with Must-Have parenting, I took him up on that offer.

As it turned out, Dr. Mary Ann Franco-Kerns, the expert he connected me with, really does know her stuff. And she's really nice.

First off, Dr. Franco-Kerns insisted that I just call her "M" -- which was great because I knew it would take me way less time to type "M" than to type "Dr. Franco-Kerns" when I wrote up her responses. I liked her already.

I explained to her what a Must-Have Parent is and I let her know that, while not everyone who reads this column is in a military family, many of my readers are indeed fluent in acronyms.

I told her that deployments, other work trips and the unpredictability that comes when you're married to someone with a boss as demanding as Uncle Sam can leave the primary parents feeling a lot like single parents. I also explained that many of my readers, like myself, live far from extended family members and old friends.

M said she absolutely understood and then went on to tell me that she wasn't just a licensed marriage and family therapist with a doctoral degree who teaches counseling classes, she was also a woman who had raised her own daughter from age 7 until 21 as a single mom after her first husband died. In other words, she wasn't just talking the talk, she had walked the walk.

With all of that established, we jumped into the interview. We talked about a lot of things, including her specific suggestions for Must-Have Parents.

Q: When my husband is deployed, what can he do to maintain a bond with our children? A: After a year separation -- even a 6-month separation, the kids are going to be different people. Daily contact with them while he's gone -- if it's possible -- is such a help. Skype, FaceTime, that sort of daily contact will mean there won't be as much of a gap to be bridged. And then maybe every few months he can mail each of them something just to convey to them that he's thinking of them.

Q: And what should I be doing as the parent at home to make the situation as good as it can be for my children? A: Establish family time once a week when you all can engage in an activity everyone enjoys. Go to the park, the beach -- somewhere you're forced to engage with each other.

Establish personal time for each of your children to have with you. Around bedtime, you could read with just your 3-year-old for 15 minutes if she goes to bed before the other two. Be present with her. Be in the moment. Then do the same thing with your 7-year-old. Maybe lie next to her in bed and talk about the day, or read together. Then with your 11-year-old, do something just for him. Really get into his world. At his age, they really just crave your presence and time.

When you have more time on the weekends, do arts and crafts with them, or maybe bake a cake together. Do something that will create good memories for them. That will send them the message that they are important and that you love them and enjoy being a parent.

I know it sounds like it will take a lot of time and work, and it might at first. But the reward you'll get is that they will be more compliant with your requests because you'll have a personal relationship with them, and then you'll spend less time correcting them.

Hug all of them a lot -- group hugs are especially important because it will decrease the competitiveness between kids.

Also, you can only give your children what you have. Get your own socialization needs and physical needs met. Get enough sleep. Mind your nutrition. Exercise. What I found helpful was to meet with friends who had children in a similar age range. Then I could get my socialization needs met at the same time my daughter got hers met.

Q: What will make reintegration easier for everyone when my husband returns? A: When he gets home, integrate him into that family activity that everyone enjoys. Not an activity where one person has to sacrifice for someone else, an activity everyone enjoys equally. And then let him do the nighttime routine with the kids instead of you. Establish a routine with him and for him to have that individual time with each child.

For the absent parent, I would highly suggest that when they are present to be really present -- create the moment, honor the family, honor the time together. Avoid only TV watching together or other things that may distract them from the relationships. Playing sports and doing arts and crafts projects are great. The parent who has been gone really needs to make a very conscious and conscientious effort to say positive things to the children too. Like, "I really like you," "I like being your parent." "You're really fun" -- they should say things like that a minimum of five times a day.

Q: What else do Must-Have Parents need to know? A: I saw a travel ad once that said something like, "You only get 18 summers with your child -- make the most of them." That's good advice.

Parents need to really iron out their own couple issues so that they don't spill over into the children. Seek professional help if necessary. Kids may be acting out because negative energy is spilling over to them. Happy parents create happy children.

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