On June 21, I published my son’s summer reading list for AP Government to a Facebook group asking the question, “Is it just me, or does anyone else have a problem with my son’s AP Government choices for summer reading?”
Within a few hours, I had spoken to the school and the story went viral and then more viral. The list was retracted as an assignment. For the record, I did reach out to the individual teacher. He never responded.
Nine days later, I, and everyone on the Baldwin County Board of Education email list, received an email from the superintendent of the school district. He indicated his lack of concern for the content of the list, opined that he doesn’t care what people in California and Illinois think and even acknowledged he would like to read some of the books on the list in question.
On the evening of July 4, I wrote to Mr. Tyler asking for a meeting to discuss the contents of his email further and to address my concerns as a parent living in Baldwin County. Here is my email:
I am writing in response to your email on Friday regarding the AP Government reading list. I am the parent who originally complained about the list. I would like to request a meeting with you to discuss what I believe is an important issue in this class.
As a parent living in Spanish Fort, not in California as you referenced in your email, who believes this list is inappropriate for any AP class, I do not understand why you did not address my concerns as a part of your response. There are many in Spanish Fort who have concerns and your email seems to assume that is not the case.
I would like to understand why you are unconcerned about the content of this list. To me, the content of any academic class is of utmost importance. The fact the the contents of this list included zero academic or scholarly options is critical to me. This is an AP Government class. It is not a class on politics. There is no opinion about the formation and foundation of our government. There is theory. There is perspective gained from other governments in historical context as well as comparative context.
I would also like to know if you asked Mr. Ponder any questions other than whether or not he had the list approved. Did you ask the context of his using these readings? Did you ask why all of his supplemental resources and presentations consisted of the same type material? Did you ask him or his students if he taught his class from this political perspective? These are important questions. Did you ask if any students ever heard him using derogatory names for liberals after class or in the hallways?
Have you considered how a student who is outside Mr. Ponder's political ideology would feel sitting in his class?
Also, you stated there is a policy for vetting books. I would like to see that policy. I would also like to see your policy regarding LGBT in school and their treatment and rights to protection and inclusion.
Please contact me as soon as possible to arrange a meeting so that I can better understand how to move forward.
By Monday, July 10, six days later, I had not received a response. I sent a follow up email asking if he intended to respond to me and I left a phone message asking for a return call. On July 11, a week after my initial contact and several hours after he received a formal complaint filed with the Mr. Tyler’s office (which I signed) I received the following:
Ms. Denham, the email sent out from my office addressed the failure of the teacher to follow the established procedure for gaining approval for additional reading materials for his students. In the future, I expect this procedure to be followed. In the email, I also stated my position on our students being exposed to as much information as possible from all sources, and for them to be allowed to make up their minds as to their beliefs. The email included my opinion, and it was intended to inform. Likewise, you, and anyone else, are free to form their own opinion. To your comments about communication and transparency, expressing my opinion on the matter and pushing that opinion out to stakeholders is the ultimate form of communication and transparency. I do not intend to meet with you to discuss my email communication. Pursuant to your request, attached is the curriculum procedure for reading selections that are not on the county-approved reading list. In response to your email, you are also welcome to review the Board Policy Manuel, a copy of which is linked to the Board’s website. See specifically policies 105 and 934. Have a nice day.
I find this whole situation incredibly perplexing and bothersome. If Mr. Tyler believes his opinion is relevant in this situation, I fear he does not understand his role as superintendent. His opinion should not be a factor in enforcing policy and equal protection for our students. When students feel marginalized and/or intimidated by the forceful expression of a teacher’s personal ideology, how can they feel protected?
Mr. Tyler also does not understand that he is and should be accountable to his “stakeholders,” students and parents alike. If he refuses to meet with a parent in order to find resolution to an issue that many have expressed outrage and concern over, where is the accountability? Do we, as parents, have no right to question his policy and procedure to ensure our students are not without a voice at school?
I am perplexed that the content of this list did not provide the impetus for further questioning of a teacher who would produce it. It begs so many questions. Was the class taught from that perspective? Was a personal viewpoint advocated by the teacher? Were students intimidated or marginalized by the tone of the class? How much of the supplemental material was used in daily class time? How much of the curriculum was presented in the context of the list and the similar supplemental resources and presentation materials listed on the website? Will there be a review and a corrective plan made so that this teacher understands the problems with this material?
I have spoken to a student who has heard this teacher use the word “libtard” after class when speaking to conservative students. Why on Earth would we support a teacher who influences his students to name-call and perpetuate divisiveness? And how do students with different beliefs feel when they walk by and hear such language from a person in a position of power?
If Mr. Tyler refuses to speak with concerned parents, what is our recourse? Our recourse is to ask for a fair hearing of our concerns and an earnest review of the formal complaint. Our recourse is to ask for a formal review of policy related to this situation and the others listed in the complaint. There are many issues listed in this complaint. I have personal knowledge of a least a few.
I would encourage you to participate in the effort for change and respectfully ask that your concerns be heard. I would have preferred a meeting, but in the alternative, I will continue to express my resolve to effect change in our local culture that diversity of thought and experience not only be accepted, but encouraged.
If you would like to have your voice heard, Mr. Tyler’s email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In case you missed Mr. Tyler’s original email to the county, please see it below.
With the 4th of July Independence Day weekend in sight, I find myself reflecting back over the events of last week centered around a 12th grade social studies summer reading list that was posted at one of our schools.
A teacher posted a summer reading list without first presenting the list for approval by the social studies departmental committee at the school. The list was withdrawn, but almost immediately people started complaining and assuming that the reading list was removed because it was comprised of a list of conservative authors.
Responses posted to websites like the Huffington Post and other social media outlets from California and Illinois started complaining that we, the Baldwin County Public School System, were circulating right wing propaganda to our students.
I can honestly say that I am not losing any sleep over what the folks in California think about what we are doing in the Baldwin County Public School System!
As I looked over the list, I recognized several of the authors. In fact, there are a few books on the list which I’d like to read. The content of the list might be of concern to some people, but it wasn’t my concern. The failure of the teacher to follow the process was my concern.
The Baldwin County Public School System has a process for approving books that are not on the approved reading list.
Even if the books were authored by other well-known people such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi, I would have reacted in the same manner. The problem wasn’t the list, the problem was that the list had not gone through the proper vetting process. After speaking with the teacher, he admitted as much, and I appreciated his honesty.
I encouraged the teacher to read all of the books on the list and if he so chooses recommend the books he feels are important for students to read to the social studies departmental committee for review at the appropriate time next year. If he does not think that the books he submits receive a fair review, I have asked him to contact me to discuss any concerns he may have with the review process. However, I believe that any books placed before the social studies departmental committee will be given a thorough review by those educators.
ALL of our students need a healthy dose of both sides of political arguments and viewpoints, both conservative and liberal. Exposing our students to different thoughts and asking our students to consider differing points of view is what education is all about!
This social studies list does not worry me. What I worry about is exposing students to a book on Jack and Jane showing up in a 2nd grade classroom with inappropriate pictures and talking about a subject that might be offensive to parents. I do not want this to happen. When we don’t adhere to a process for vetting an official reading list we find ourselves in jeopardy of placing inappropriate material in the hands of students. It is my job as superintendent to not allow this to happen at any grade level!
I am very proud of our teachers and the work they do! I want our teachers to push our students to think outside the box and consider many perspectives before arriving at the truth for themselves. I ask that teachers challenge their students and expose them to different ways of thinking! While I encourage this, we have to keep in mind that there is a process in place to allow that exposure to happen. We must ensure that our efforts are appropriate, peer reviewed and approved.
Many complain that public education relies on too much liberal indoctrination. I do not believe that to be the case in Baldwin County Public Schools. I encourage our teachers to balance their teachings of political philosophies so they appropriately reflect the real world we live in today. As superintendent, I want our students to have a balanced education.
As we pause to celebrate our 4th of July Independence Day, please take time to appreciate that we are free to discuss ALL of these ideas. We should be able to celebrate those things on which we agree as well as argue against those on which we disagree.
This is a testament to the awesome country we live in. I am proud of what we teach our students in the Baldwin County Public School System. We want students to be proud of our country’s history and to be able to intelligently engage in discussions on politics.
I am Eddie Tyler, Superintendent of the Baldwin County Public School System and I am BALDWIN PROUD!
The ability to be heard. The ability to make a difference. The ability to evoke positive change. The ability to use your voice in the world around you. These are things I think most people value. With myself and my own family, I try to encourage each child to understand who they are, what is important to them and how to express themselves effectively.
Last week, I found myself expressing myself in a way that became very public. I asked a simple question about the appropriateness of a reading list, and now the world is debating it. Here are some places I have commented: BuzzFeed, Lagniappe, al.com, Huffington Post. In each post and in each comment I have made on social media, I have been very intentional about being respectful even in the face of very harsh criticism.
And there is a reason for that. I believe that in the political climate in which we are living, the one with hate, vitriol, name-calling and anger, most of us have lost the ability to be heard. When you lead with intention to vilify the other’s point of view, where do you expect to go from there? Do you truly believe you will lead someone to an alternate perspective? No. And that means the intention is to hurt and rant and rage. The intention is to be divisive, not unifying. And as a community and a nation, we need to get past this attitude.
I have four teenagers and a ten-year-old. They are learning how to navigate the world and how best to express themselves. I have worked with each of them to use their voices and own who they are and what they want in their lives. The funny thing about teens, is that they are often literal in their understandings. They are young and idealistc and believe they can change the wrongs they see in the world. I want them to believe that so that they will go out and invest in the future. But while they are learning, they make a few mistakes.
My oldest daughter found herself in a group text thread in which one participant was saying things that were racist and sexist. So she told him he was racist and sexist. Now, she was correct. His communication was quite offensive, but by resorting to name-calling, she was perpetuating the negative tone of the conversation. She was struggling with what we all struggle with right now. We want to stand up and let someone have it when they are awful. But is that really productive? I suggested that maybe rather than direct her comments to him, should could have directed her comments to the subjects of his harsh attitude and offered words of support and compassion. In the group text, he would have seen it and her message would have been clear without calling him names. In the name-calling, you completely lose your ability to be heard even if you are right. I love her passion. She is very involved in social justice and in her community at college. And she usually gets it right. But it is my job to help her retain her ability to be heard.
My middle son is also involved in politics. It is he who brought the reading list to my attention. He watched as the story unfolded and as he was asked for comments by news sources. He has had to be deliberate in what message he wanted to present. And so we have had a lot of discussion. He loves his school. He sees the problems in our community with inclusivity and tolerance, but he prefers to work with the school for the betterment of the community. Not to alienate anyone. It can be very difficult, because as a 17-year-old, he is very emotive and passionate. He has made the mistake of sending impulsive, angry messages before, and he wants to learn how to communicate in a way that helps, not hurts.
I recognize that the attention Mr. Ponder and the Spanish Fort High School community has received for this has not been easy or welcomed. I remained focused only on the reading list. I have seen other commentary that has brought out other issues. I have seen people calling for Mr. Ponder’s job. Here is my take on that: I do not know Mr. Ponder. I know that his list was inappropriate. I know that his listed resources were inappropriate. I do not have first-hand knowledge of his teaching.
When I spoke to the principal, he said he had not seen this list. I have to take that at face value. He took the list down, took my call and reacted how I hoped he would. I have to applaud that. From what I can tell, no one complained about this list or these resources before. Now that it has been brought to the county’s attention, I am willing to wait to see if Mr. Ponder makes the adjustments needed to present a better class and if the administration insists on that.
When my youngest daughter’s friend played games mocking other girls behind their backs and she went along with it, we had a big talk about being the kind of person you want to be, being a leader not a follower and doing the right thing when no one is looking. I asked what she thought we should do about this friend. She said, “not be friends anymore?” I told her that when someone makes a mistake, you give them the chance to do the right thing. If they continue the same wrong path, then you reconsider.
I am willing to give Mr. Ponder the chance to do the right thing. As far as any other issues, I think there are times and places and ways to go about communicating. I prefer to work within a system and within a community. You can’t bully someone over everything just because an opportunity presents itself.
There are a lot of good things about our community. And there are a lot of problems. I hope that I can become more involved in being a force for change. And I know that it will be incremental. And I welcome our citizens to join me in open, respectful and productive dialogue.
I write a lot about not only accepting your reality but embracing it. The good and the bad. The idea is to accept so that you can learn from your life situations and embrace so you can find value even when things feel unbearable. I call it The Gift of the Struggle. It’s what gets me through a lot.
But there are times when you should not accept. Times to stand up and speak out against that which is wrong and unjust. I work hard to teach my five kids to use their voices and stand for their beliefs. This balance between embracing your reality and knowing when it is time to reject it is sometimes a difficult line to walk.
Yesterday, however, the choice was clear. My son, an incoming senior in high school brought me a copy of his AP Government reading list.
“The reading list is pretty bad,” he said. “I think you need to take a look.”
Bad was an understatement. There were FIVE titles from Michael Savage. One from Ann Coulter. One from Sheriff Richard Mack. The list goes on and on – 31 options. They were anti-climate change, anti-liberal, pro-Christian, etc. This is a public school, by the way. Of the 31 choices, there were probably two that I found acceptable and they weren’t ideal. There was not one academic book on the list and zero historical/intellectual options.
Here is my point of view: I encourage my children to read things they disagree with. To listen to those with opposing perspectives. To be open to ideas other than theirs, but to stand up for their beliefs respectfully. This list did not encourage that philosophy. It presented one side. And one side filled with pop culture personalities who spew hate and rhetoric – not intellectual, respected authors who offer well-educated ideas from different points of view. And how is my 17 year-old son, who is the Southeast Regional Director for the State of Alabama for High School Democrats of America supposed to sit in this class and feel he has a voice?
Take a look at the list:
I posted this list in a closed progressive group in which I participate. The reaction was fierce. Outrage. Incredulity. Action. It was intense and it was immediate.
I immediately emailed the teacher and copied the principal on it asking questions. Giving the teacher a chance to offer an explanation. No response. Here is my email:
My son just printed the AP Government and Economics reading list and I have a few questions. The list is predominantly populated with one perspective. A conservative one. I would like to know your reasoning for choosing this list and what perspective you plan to teach these books from. Can you identify the value you hope to offer in terms of choosing this list?
Can you let me know why there are no titles that would offer an alternate perspective or a balance to the list you have provided?
If you had provided both points of view in your selections and had students chose one from each perspective, I would see the value in debating the points of view and showing students the presentation of opposing views. But that is not the case here.
Also, several authors are not those I would expect to see from an academic class. Those chosen are more pop culture type pundits rather than those who would offer academic, intellectual schools of thought on conservative policy.
There are several books on the list written by people I find truly offensive and believe are hateful in rhetoric and philosophy. How will these books/authors be handled in your class?
I welcome your discussion as I was truly shocked at the political slant in your selections.
I believe in giving people the chance to respond before I act. When the teacher did not respond, I called the principal. He said, and I believe he was sincere, that this was the first he had heard of the list and he was retracting the assignment and planned to speak with the teacher. I inquired about what I should do if this teacher taught his class from this perspective, and he told me he wants to know. I believe that.
Here is what I find interesting. As this post went around the internet, there were many who had experienced this teacher. Their children were not surprised about this list. They indicated that he taught class from his right-wing perspective for more than a decade and that this reading list had been used for several years. Many parents were uncomfortable and talked to their children about how to handle his class. But as far as I can tell, no one complained to the school. No one confronted the teacher. If they did, they did it quietly.
I have some thoughts on the reasons for this. I live in Spanish Fort, Alabama. It is a VERY conservative area of the country. I am not conservative at all. When I first moved here from Pensacola, FL five years ago, I did not realize I would not find any like-minded people – because they were all staying under the radar. If you are a liberal here, you tend to just be quiet to avoid conflict with pretty much everyone you know. When you unexpectedly find a fellow liberal, it’s a little private party where you jump up and down…on the inside.
This attitude of hiding has created a culture of a silent minority. Parents seem to hesitate to speak out. I think there is fear of a negative impact on our children if we complain about a list like this. That fear is not unfounded. But is that enough to remain silent?
The silver lining of the hostile political climate we are now enduring is that people are coming together for a cause. Through these closed political social media groups, I have discovered that there are a lot more people like me in lower Alabama than I ever knew. The support and common ground we have found in knowing each other has empowered more and more of us to become active locally and to speak up for our beliefs – even in the face of name calling (which has occurred to my own 19 year-old daughter in the discussion of this list). What has the world come to when a teenager is called names by a middle-aged man for expressing her point of view? Her point of view that the silent minority shared and became the vocal minority for?
I have to say, I am proud of the swift action the community took to right this wrong. And it goes to show that when people come together for a common cause and take action, change can be swift and decisive. Onward.
I wrote this post in 2012, the day after Obama was re-elected. I fear the need for the same sentiment. And this year, I have two children voting for the first time, a 16 year old who is so interested in the political process, he helped found a young political group at school, helped organize a student debate and is having friends over to watch the returns, a 14 year old who has watched all of the debates and a 10 year old who is very impressionable. Please, lets keep our children in mind as we navigate today and the days to follow. Please read and comment with your thoughts...
I voted for President Obama and thought that today I would feel very happy about his re-election. Instead, I woke up to see anger, sarcasm, resentment and disrespect for the president and those who voted for him being expressed all over my Facebook wall. I am very disappointed that many of you choose to be filled with hate, derision and negativity and choose to express those feelings in such a public way. I have five children and many of you are in our "village" influencing and setting examples for them. Some of you are friends with them on Facebook. Decisions like yours cause me inordinate distress because I believe that you are teaching them all of the wrong lessons.
I am raising my children to be be informed, to be open minded, to be tolerant of everyone alike or different, to question authority without disrespecting it. I am teaching them that they have the power to become informed and educated and by listening to others, make decisions on their own. Your decision goes against every single one of my goals.
By showing them hate and a closed mind, you are teaching them that by having an opinion different from yours, they will be greeted with hate thus making it more difficult for them to form their own opinions and express them without fear. Open- mindedness is taught by exposing children to different people, cultures, and viewpoints. By expressing derision of their government, you are reinforcing the idea that it is not okay to be different from each other.
Tolerance is taught by example. By showing them that when your candidate doesn't win, it is okay to attack those who voted differently from you or to attack the president or the government, you are teaching them to turn their backs on those who are or believe differently, rather than encouraging open and respectful discussion.
Our country was founded by our questioning of an authority with which we disagreed. By allowing our children to see disrespectful attacks instead of respectful discussion you are teaching them to disrespect authority instead of giving them the tools to question or change their futures.
Providing children information from every perspective gives them the belief and the tools to change their futures and impact the world. By attacking one group's views and votes, you are teaching them that they have no power to make their own decisions or to change their futures without fear of retribution.
I would like my village to have the goals that I have listed above to produce educated, informed, tolerant, open-minded and powerful children who will grow to be adults with those same qualities. I would like them armed with knowledge as they go through school and go out into the world.
This time, my candidate won. I have experienced the same disappointment in other elections when my choice lost. I did not attack my friends for their votes. I did not, in dramatic fashion, pray to God that he would save us from the "evil" that loomed. I think the president needs prayers for wise and just decisions whether he is my choice or not. I did not believe that the world would end because my choice didn't win. And it won't now.
We live in a country that provides peaceful election and peaceful transfer of power when a new candidate wins. We need to appreciate this and recognize that many risk much more when they vote. We need to teach our children, by example, that we can win or lose gracefully. That we can respect the office of the president and try to support each other and articulate our opinions in ways that teach our children to be the kind of adults we would like them to be..
I want my children to be politically aware. I want them to learn to watch and think for themselves. I do not want to feel compelled to warn them that talking about politics with friends may not be such a good idea for fear they will be attacked. I believe that this culture of hate and fear can turn the young away from wanting to learn about and participate in the process. I believe that those who express hate and vilify others run the risk of denying my children the experiencing of history by making them afraid.
It does not matter for whom you voted or what your political affiliation, children and adults (because every adult is a part of some child's village) should respect the office of President, even if you do not respect the man or the ideology.
I have written my political views on Facebook. I have made every effort to be respectful, find facts and post articles that I find interesting and support my ideas. I have never called someone (either a political figure or friend) a name or attacked anyone personally. Even I began to feel disillusioned with discussion as people are very angry when you disagree with them. That is not the path I want my children to walk.
Change starts with the individual. If we can come together and work together, it will be harder for those in power to remain so polarized. If you do not like the way things are, instead of ranting in anger, why not do something about it using respectful and intelligent discussion. Call your senator, write your congressman, attend meetings. Take you children and teach them how it works. At the very least, before you speak or post, pause to think if what you are about to say is something you would want your children to hear or see.
We live in an area with a great deal of diversity and however you believe, it is important for all children to know that anything is possible and barriers of all kinds can be conquered. Our president is an historical figure by sheer virtue of the fact that he is our first African-American president. We should at the very least respect that. Maybe if we all pulled together for the greater good, he could actually accomplish something, and we could teach our children in the process.
I wrote the following post on my Facebook page over the summer:
I consider it my job as a mother, stepmother and mother of a blended family to always be the bigger person. Always rise above conflict. Always put all of our kids first even when it's detrimental to me. Always support safe and healthy relationships with their other parents when possible and to protect them when not possible. Always teach them that they have a voice in these complicated situations. Always listen when they learn to use their voices.
But sometimes I just don't want to be the bigger person. I want to say how I really feel or just go home instead of show up. I will never make those choices, but sometimes doing the right thing takes every ounce of energy I have.
Shortly after posting, I noticed a good number of reactions and comments, but more importantly, I received several message in my inbox. They were from women who had been in similar situations and felt similar struggles in doing the right thing each and every time. These women offered words of encouragement, understanding and empathy. They thanked me for being willing to be real and honest. Because who wants to admit sometimes you’d rather just leave? But sometimes I’d rather just leave. And evidently I am not alone.
I was at a swim meet that day. Usually I am surrounded by a buffer of any number of our five kids. That day, everyone was otherwise occupied, and I was alone. My husband was there, but had volunteered as a timer, so I was effectively alone. So every time the swimmer had an event, it was me and the other parent at the end of the lane cheering. Pretty much the last place I wanted to be. Alone with the other parent who has never once had a conversation with me in five years (except to cuss me out, and that doesn’t really count as a conversation since I did not participate) and has no intention of having one ever.
At one point, as I walked to the pool, it was apparent that I was being looked at, pointed out and discussed by the other parent and an unwitting participant in me-bashing. Now, this happens fairly regularly, and usually I just ignore it. But this day I was tired. It was hot and I was tired. When I saw this display, I just wanted it to stop. Have you ever screamed inside your own head with a smile on your face? I have. I fought my instinct to say, “Just stop it!” or “Shut up why don’t you?” or “What is your problem?” I seriously debated turning around and going home or going back to my chair or watching from another location, but then I thought of the swimmer. Would she wonder where I was when she reached to end of the lane to do her flip turn and I wasn’t there cheering for her? Would she believe the negative things she constantly heard about me because I abandoned her and didn’t watch as usual?
So I stayed at the end of the lane. Cheering, smiling and doing the right thing. The thing that no one tells you when you become a step-parent, is that it is never about you. It is easy to know this with your biological children. That genetic bond makes it automatic. But with steps, it is a conscious choice. You begin your relationship loving them because you love your spouse. And you hope and pray that you truly grow to love them because your love THEM. And over the time of my marriage, I did grow to love THEM. But when someone is working to sabotage that relationship, that choice to do the right thing is a struggle. I have to remind myself that these are the kids who had no choice in their divorced circumstances. They never asked to be in the middle. They shouldn’t have to manage the adults and their relationships. EVER.
When I realized that blending my family was not going to be a walk in the park, I promised my steps that I would always do the right thing. Always. I would never participate in fighting, arguing or drama. That promise is the thing that keeps me on the straight and narrow. I do not ever want to be the one causing them harm, making them choose or causing them pain. I want to show them what it means in life to be the bigger person. The only problem with that is that is what often causes me harm, pain and drama. But it is not about me. It is about them. And sometimes doing the right thing and adulting SUCKS!
So receiving emails from women who have felt the same emotions was comforting. It can be very isolating to go through parenting issues, but with step-parenting it is magnified. People love to judge and assume. But no one really knows how hard it can be and what is really going on. Two of the women who messaged me were women I don’t see often. One was a woman I have never met, but have worked with by email on projects. Hearing from them makes me feel less isolated. And I know I can email them if I need to and they will be a sounding board. So let’s keep the dialogue open and support each other. And together, maybe we can find the Gift of the Struggle.
How do you keep doing the right thing?
What do you do when you screw up (because we all do)?
Who can you talk to when the going gets tough?
Share your gifts…
Hi, I am a single mom with one 10 year old girl. My ex husband and daughter's father has remarried a year ago and moved in with new wife and her 13 year old twins and 16 year old daughter. My daughter has enjoyed having step-siblings and I think it has been good for her to be around a large family. Last night, she asked if she could buy with her money a very expensive pair of boots for her step sister. How do I explain to my daughter why it isn't appropriate to spend my money on my exes step children?
I would leave the issue of spending your money on your ex's step children out of the discussion. The less you can make it about that, the better and the more well received you will be by both your daughter and your ex should he get any version of your conversation from your daughter. I would focus the conversation on spending responsibly and when and what occasions are appropriate to give gifts. In our family, we keep gift giving to a budget, so maybe you can set a limit ($15 or $20) for gift giving and discuss appropriate occasions for it , birthdays, Christmas, etc.
Also, she will probably want to give them Christmas gifts this year. When that comes up, I would just say, "That's something for you and your dad to do together." If it gets close, and he has not helped her get gifts, then I would let her earn a bit ( a little bit) to be able to get them something inexpensive herself and just think of it as her money, not yours, so that you don't get hung up on your money going to his house. The idea of that is no fun, but she would feel worse if she didn't have anything to give on a holiday.
My kids actually got their dad a $5.00 bike light one year when his car had broken down on the side of the highway and he left it there never to return. He was relegated to a bike as means of transportation for a while, and he was actually thrilled because he had been pulled over on the bike by a cop for riding without a light or reflectors at night. It really is the thought that counts!
Three years ago, I wrote an article called, “Keeping Kids Out of the Middle” with tips for navigating divorce with children. I still stand by these tips and decided there are things to add after going through every phase of early childhood and up to graduating two seniors this year.
The first article elaborated on the following basic tips:
• Do not speak badly about your ex in front of your children
• Do not make the children responsible for any form of communication between you and your ex
• Never discuss money with your children as it relates to your ex
• Accept the fact that you do not control what goes on at the other parent’s house
• Do not ever make your children feel guilty for being away from you
I have been remarried for almost four years, and between us, we have five children. When we married, they were 14 (two of them), 12, 10, and 6. Now, they are 18 (two of them) 16, 14, and 10. We have spent our marriage making sure that we keep all of the kids out of the middle of our divorces. As you can imagine, dealing with a blended family and with 2 exes who are parents of five children is no easy feat. But we have both managed to develop good relationships with all of our children.
I think most of us imagine that things will get easier over time. But as kids grow and develop, they begin to develop their own thoughts, feelings and perspectives of their situations. They may have opinions based on information someone gave them that may or may not be accurate. They may question their realities as they begin to see things for themselves. This complicates the ability to keep them out of the middle because they can have difficult questions about why and how things have occurred or been handled.
Here are some things we have learned further along the way:
• Answer your children’s questions from the perspective of who you are not who your ex is. When children have questions about a divorce or a situation between you and your ex, it is a difficult conversation to navigate. Answer their questions from your own perspective of who you are and why you are that way. Leave your perspective of your ex out of it. When your children understand your values, they can better understand your decisions.
• When and if your children complain about the behavior of their other parent to you, stay out of it. The correct response to this complaint is, “I am sorry you feel that way (or I am sorry that happened to you). Have you discussed that with your mother/father?” You want to avoid one parent being pitted against the other. Even if your relationship with your ex is not good, this is not something for you to solve for your child. Your child needs to learn to voice these concerns to the one who can change it. If they are very young, I would let the other parent know that this was brought up to you, that you plan to stay out of it, and that he/she may want to address this with the child. This exception, of course, is if the child is in danger.
• Encourage your children to find and use their voices. One of the saddest things that can happen to children of divorce is that they can feel the need to please or the need not to make waves. It is never a child’s job to keep the peace, and children should be encouraged to express their feelings in an appropriate way. Encourage your children to let you know when they are confused, angry, upset or unhappy. And encourage them to tell their other parent. Part of having healthy relationships is being able to articulate what you need. This is especially important to children in a divorce situation.
• Encourage your children to set healthy boundaries. As a child gets older, they need to learn when to say when. If a parent is doing something harmful to the child (speaking badly about the other parent, etc.) a child should be able to say, “I do not like it when you talk about my mother/father” or “It hurts me when you say that.” They should be able to say these things to both parents, you included. And when they do get up the courage to set a boundary, respect it. If you don’t, they will begin to set more and more distant boundaries.
• Trust your children to find their own truths. This is the hardest thing to do, but when you live your life honestly and openly, your children will know who you are. It is not your job to bash the other parent, prove a point or make a case - that will backfire every time. Live a good life, treat your child with respect and honesty and trust the truth.
Nothing about raising kids in a divorce situation is easy, but when they can trust that you will talk to them in an open, objective and non-threatening way - to them and about their other parent - they will trust that they can come to you and be heard. That is the strength of any good relationship.
What’s in a name? Well, when you are in a blended family, a lot! When we remarry, we tend to focus our time and attention on blending the two families; we establish relationships, form new traditions, meld. And that’s all great. We should do those things. We want to feel like a family and find that family dynamic amongst the difficulty of step parenting, forming new sibling relationships and trying to co-parent with the other parents (the ones who don’t live in our house).
But we have to be careful to remember something. Before we blended, our children had established identities. They identified as a family with their biological parents and siblings. Everyone (in general) shared the same last name. When divorced parents remarry, the waters of identity can be muddied for the kids.
All of us divorced parents know the identity crises we have faced when learning to be single adults again. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who are our friends? And divorce can cause identity crises for everyone involved — especially children. When a child’s name is different than their mother’s, which is true in my case, it can be confusing for younger children and a glaring reminder of the separation of parents for older children.
When people have identified our family as “The Denhams” either verbally or even on Christmas cards, my boys have pointed out that they are not Denhams, they are Reostis. No one makes this mistake with any ill will or intent, they just generally identify families by the parents’ names. In the beginning, I didn’t pay as much attention to the comments from the boys because, of course they are Reostis. But they live with a man who, while he treats and loves them as his own, is not their biological father. And has a different name from them. And people often assume (especially if they don’t know their dad) that when they refer to their dad, they are talking about my husband. It is a conflicting place for them to be — not wanting to discount my husband, but also wanting to acknowledge their father.
I have a friend at church who ALWAYS greets our family as the “Denham Reostis.” It is so important because it acknowledges all of our kids. When people say just “the Denhams,” three of our children do not feel identified. So blended families, be aware of the nuance of identity — sign cards with both names, call yourselves with both names and let people know that is how you want to be recognized. Friends of blended families, be sensitive to knowing the last names of the kids and using those names when you identify them.
We are the Denham-Reostis. That is our family name.
Self-awareness. Simple concept. Challenging accomplishment. As much as it seems like we should all be able to assess our actions, an astonishing number of people go through life and relationships without any idea how their own behavior can impact their decisions, relationships and ultimately, their happiness.
I have written several articles that address those things in life that can hold you back from relationships. From deciding to be or not to be a victim to deciding tosettle or not to settle, I have tried to highlight decisions that we all have control over. After all, we all know that the only behavior we can control is our own. The problem arises when our self-awareness is low. In my book, Sweeten the Deal: How to Spot and Avoid the Big Red Flags in Online Dating, I identify it as “those who fail to embrace their own reality.”
We all know the person who thinks that every bad thing that has happened is someone else’s fault, and, really, someone else’s responsibility. And do you know the person who is willing to date anyone to avoid being alone? Yes, you do. And what about the exhausting friend who continues to participate in old relationships that are supposedly “over” but by the continual communication with these “over” relationship-people and the subsequent regurgitation of the trauma of these “done” relationships, it is obviously not OVER! The ones who have BIG GLARING RED FLAGS in their relationships are the most frustrating... how can you not see what the rest of us see? Help!
But what about ourselves? How often do we take the time to look honestly at our own behavior and decide if we are getting in our own way? Probably not enough. I mean, that’s not fun. And once we become aware that we are getting in our own way, we actually have to change! Ugh! Again, not fun!
So here are some questions to help you start your quest toward self-awareness and your effort to embrace your own reality.
1. Are you unable to spend time alone and feel a need to fill every minute of your time?
2. If you are not dating someone, do you feel inadequate or like a failure?
3. Are you generally angry in your life?
4. Do you find yourself blaming other people when something goes wrong?
5. Do you feel helpless to change your situation in life?
6. Do you continue to communicate with past relationships?
7. Do you find yourself stalking former relationships on social media?
8. Do you overlook flaws in a date/relationship that make you uncomfortable?
9. Do your friends tell you that your date/relationship is unhealthy for you?
10. Do you agonize over your current situation and look back to figure out whose fault it is?
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” you may need a little self-reflection. When you are aware that you may sabotage your relationships with behavior you can control, it is time to take a break and figure out what is driving your behavior and work on it. If your fear of being alone or willingness to overlook deal breakers is driven by insecurity, that will require some work. Insecurity should not be a driving force in any relationship. If you react to situations in anger, especially misdirected anger, then you need to accept your life as it is now. Take responsibility for your future and release the blame of wrongs past. It only hurts you and your family. Whatever the reason for self-sabotage, until you become aware of it, you can’t stop it. When you acknowledge it and in turn, embrace it, you become empowered to know what you want and make the good choices that will lead you to it! Not easy. But definitely doable!
“You can only do the best you can do. Sometimes that is survival and sometimes that is stellar. And that’s okay.”
This has been a mantra of mine for years. Until my twenties, I had always marveled at how charmed I felt my life was. Things generally went well if I worked hard. When they weren’t as great, I knew that it was temporary and soon I would feel back on top. I was lucky. I had a good family, good friends, a good education. And then, really for the first time, life got in the way.
When I was 24, my first husband and I decided to have a baby. We went through almost 4 years of infertility and 2 miscarriages before I finally had a successful pregnancy. My husband was deployed for about half of that time, so I was left to cope on my own. This was my first real survival mode. I got up every day, went to work and went out with friends. But emotionally, I was just trying to get through the day. I was grieving the miscarriages every moment of every day, and all I wanted to do was to get to the end of the day so that I could go to sleep and not think about it. I did what needed to be done and only what needed to be done. And that was okay.
Over the next few years, we had a baby, he got out of the Navy and went to law school, we had two more children and moved back to my hometown. When the boys were 2, 4 and 6, my marriage fell apart. He moved out on Halloween and confessed his infidelity on Christmas. I filed for divorce the first week of January and by early February, my youngest son began to have seizures on the hour every hour for two weeks. This was real survival mode. If my children were clean and fed, that was successful day. And that was okay.
The process of the divorce and getting my son healthy both took about a year. Once we got a good diagnosis (epilepsy) and the right medication, his seizures slowed to once each month for a year and then were well controlled for nine years. He is now seizure free and has been released from his neurologist.
There is nothing wrong with survival mode. When life gets tough, we need it to kick in so that we can get out of bed each day and do the things we need to do. We need to survive. We need to keep putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. But we also need to be aware when it is time to move out of survival mode so that we can get back to life.
My son was diagnosed with epilepsy for ten years. I also had two other boys who went through the normal ups and downs of childhood. And I was a single mother for eight of those years. But there is a point at which you realize that you are through the worst or at least managing it, and survival is not enough. For me, it took some time after the seizures were controlled to get out of survival mode. I still had to grieve the loss of my marriage and accept my own situation and new reality. I probably spend most of 4 years in survival mode. This is not to say I didn’t have stellar days or experiences, but mostly I was getting through. When I began to realize I needed more, I started dating and started writing. I started putting myself out there to market my writing and eventually wrote my book. I got married. I blended a family with my new husband. And I am still going.
What I learned is that survival mode is a necessary part of life. I learned that the more you survive, the less you feel set back by life getting in the way. I learned that when you decide it is time to get on with it and live your life, make plans, set goals and then go after them, you start to achieve stellar. Stellar is defined by knowing it is time to step up and take charge and then doing it.
I tend to be a perfectionist. This quality is both productive and destructive. When you are in survival mode and you are beating yourself up for not excelling every day, you are destroying your own self-esteem, and it becomes self-defeating. You have to be able to accept that survival, when that is all you can do, when life gets in the way, is an accomplishment. But when you are headed into a stellar period, that same perfectionism acts as drive to do more, learn more and keep pushing forward. The key is to recognize when it is time for these shifts. You know when survival is all you can do...but you also know when it is time to do more than just survive. So do it!