Create Positive Moments for Children
Having a decent divorce, and a great life on the other side, doesn’t just mean a minimum of negative interactions and experiences, but also the presence of positive ones. Positive experiences, and the good emotions they generate, remind us that this divorce is not our whole lives, or our children’s. There are many exciting, enriching, love-filled moments now, and in the future.
Research shows that positive emotions pack real power. Positive emotions increase creativity and resourcefulness. They help us connect to others and make it easier to cooperate, see solutions, and solve problems. In tough times, we may need to actively create positive moments for ourselves and for our children. Positive emotions can create what University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson calls, "an upward spiral of positivity.”
Fredrickson, who is also the author of Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, advises people to aim for about three positive experiences for every negative one. Negative experiences and emotions are more potent and gripping. As I’ve written about on my blog, negative experiences need a battery of positive moments to shut them up. “They don’t need to be intense, over-the-moon positive emotions,” says Fredrickson. “They could be catching a glimpse of beauty, appreciating the colors in a sunset. They tend to be so subtle that not everyone notices them.”
For children, those small creatures who will clap their hands and wiggle in full-body delight over the appearance of something as minor as a cupcake, creating positive moments can be easier than we may realize. Here are FIVE ways to do so:
Find or Encourage a Child’s Passion
As parents, we can look for activities that help our kids enter a flow state—the feeling of being so absorbed in an activity, it’s as if time stops, and worries fade. Stimulating, challenging activities can reduce the effects of even a contentious divorce. Research shows that a child who focuses on something he loves—the gymnastics team, the math club, a church group—may fare better than a sibling without a personally engaging endeavor.
If your child has expressed interest in soccer or skiing, this could be a great time sign her up and support her desire to get involved. Perhaps there’s a chess club or Spanish club at school. While some extra-curricular activities available today cost nearly as much as a college education, most cities have recreation centers, YMCAs, and other affordable options. Here in LA, I have a friend who signed her two daughters up for a four-week Minecraft competition club for $60. Each member of the winning team will earn $2000 for her efforts.
Many passions are free. Perhaps you have a friend who does photography, weightlifting, or gardening and would love to have your child work as an “assistant.” It may take a while to find a way to bolster your child’s current passion or develop a new one, but by doing so, you’re giving your child a way to learn new skills and build new strengths—and you’ll gain back those hours while he’s on the court, or at the club.
Share Your Passion
We all have different interests of our own, and we can lean on these to bring more positive moments to our children’s lives. My ex-husband loves hiking. He takes our son with him, and he built him a website on which to sell the rocks they find on the trail. They’ve sold no rocks, but our eight-year-old feels proud of having his own website and, I believe, confident that if he does want to start a viable business one day, he can.
I interviewed a woman in Manhattan who had a very social job that required her to go to art openings in the evenings. After divorce, she couldn’t pay for the amount of babysitting she'd need to attend every function, so she began taking her young daughter out with her when feasible. When I spoke to her daughter, now in college, she told me felt “special” and “cool” to get to go to all these arty adult events.
Perhaps you have a woodshop in your basement and a love for building. Try spending time with your child building a desk or stool. Your strength might be baking, or arts and crafts, volunteering, or football. Children love to spend time with their parents, and by sharing our passions, we create positive moments of connection and real skill.
Make Your House More Homey
It may sound like a chore to you, but for a child, getting to choose paint colors and curtains for his new room (if you have to move), a lamp and, a new comforter gives a sense of control and ownership, and can instill a positive feeling of a fresh start, even in an unwelcome change. Decorating and organizing together are homemaking tasks that subtly convey a message of stability and permanence, an idea that this time matters—even if you’re in a temporary rental.
Not all kids (or parents) like to "nest" in this way, but I have found that merely sitting on my son’s bed, sipping coffee while he organizes his cars and trucks gives us both a sense of cozy at-homeness. This post about organizing on OurFamilyWizard gives some great tips and ideas.
Doing an art project is a great way to achieve flow, particularly for young children. Even if you just had a fight with your ex in front of your child, sitting down for a half-hour to paint or cut or turn an egg carton into a caterpillar is 30 minutes of pure, personally expressive, conflict-free pleasure for him.
One great activity to do together is to fill an old-fashioned photo album with pictures of the highlights of the coming year or summer vacation. This project will have you both looking for bright spots over the coming months, spur positive anticipation, and retroactive savoring. You might start each week by looking at the calendar, and planning which fun, meaningful or unusual event you want to document that week. This practice helps shift your focus, and your child's, in a positive direction and adds value and emphasis to the good parts of their days.
Bring in Others
I like to cook and entertain. While married, my husband and I often threw parties. Our then-toddler crayoned place cards for guests or welcome signs. After my husband moved out, I wanted my son to still feel that we lived in an expansive, social world. I often host small dinners or cocktail parties alone, and my son continues to develop confidence and creativity in his own hosting skills.
I know that not everyone considers hosting a highpoint activity. “I’m an introvert,” you might say. Or, “I’m a single mother with a full-time job. I don’t have the time—or the dining room set—to host a dinner party!” You can bring others into your children’s lives without being an extrovert like I am or having a huge house and sterling flatware. Arranging a playdate at a park, inviting over a few friends for Sunday potluck, or meeting another parent and child for a quick, after school snack says to your kids, “We have something to offer. We have abundance—of good cheer, of chicken, of time. We have enough to share.”
This feeling of having something to give is one of the stealth benefits of initiating social interactions. If you invite another single parent over for dinner, you’ve created a playdate, saved that person from having to cook, and given your children a sense of magnanimousness. Research shows that giving to others can increase happiness more than typically fun activities like going to the movies. A habit of welcoming others gives children a sense that they live in a large, and loving world, which they do. We do not have to let divorce take that away.
Wendy Paris is a journalist and essayist whose work on marriage, relationships, and contemporary culture has appeared in The New York Times, Psychology Today, Glamour, Brides, QZ.com, Salon.com, Travel & Leisure, Essence, and Marketplace radio. She was a 2014 Fellow with New America Foundation, a 2013 Fellow with Encore.org, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a Visiting Artist at the 18th Street Arts Center. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University and blogs about the good divorce at WendyParis.com and PsychologyToday.com. She and her ex-husband and son moved together, apart, from the New York area to Santa Monica, California, while she was writing this book.