Why Non-Traditional Parenting Isn’t a Bad Thing
Let me tell you a quick story about my Modern Family and how we operate.
Last year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Getting that diagnosis was pretty scary, but what I found was even harder was telling the people I love about it. My son, who typically lives near his law school, located about an hour and a half from me, happened to be home visiting when I received my diagnosis, so I was able to tell him in person. And he was REALLY helpful in getting me through those rough few first weeks.
But my daughter was at her college 7 hours away, and I didn’t want to tell her the news over the phone, especially since I knew she would probably take the news pretty hard. I also couldn’t go to her, as I had doctor’s appointments coming up, and everything was moving so fast with treatment plans. So now what?
Well, enter the other two important people in my family – my ex-husband and his husband.
Yes, you heard me right. My Modern Family consists of me, my two young adult kids, and two gay dads.
“So, how did that even happen?” I hear you asking in your head right now (because, honestly, most people are curious about how a straight woman ends up marrying a gay man). Well, long story short, my ex and I attended a church school our entire lives – from preschool to the 12th grade -and we started dating in our senior year and married when I was barely 20 and he was 19. Of course, this was all before my ex came out, and I didn’t know that he was gay when we married. We were married for 14 years before he was able to acknowledge this truth to himself.
Like many divorced parents, I constantly worried that being a part of a so-called “broken home” would ruin my kids’ lives. I put myself through so much unnecessary stress and worry when I didn’t really need to. The fear thought that my kids would grow up to be unhappy, unloved, and miserable just wasn’t a reality.
The truth was that when we divorced, my ex and I made it a point to create a Modern Family that prioritized the basic elements of a functional and happy family. This mindset allowed our kids to grow up to be great young adults – and for my ex and I to remain friends who supported each other in life.
Our kids were 10 and 7 when we divorced, so we still had a lot of parenting time left. That meant that we were intentional in making it a priority to ensure that everyone in the family felt important and supported. We also set up habits and routines to ensure that everyone had consistent connection and communication.
Now, like most families, we’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but because we prioritized these basic family elements, not only did our kids grow up to be happy and healthy, but we are all close as a family too.
This brings me back to my cancer story. My ex-husband was one of the first people I told about my diagnosis, and when he asked what he could do to support me, I asked him to go to our daughter and be there with her when I told her. Days later, my ex and his husband flew to my daughter’s college. When they texted her that they just happened to be in her town, she knew something was up, and they quickly went to her apartment so we could all talk.
This was definitely a time when my Modern Family mobilized during a crisis, but there were many little times over the years when our family came together just to enjoy each other. Looking back, I wish I had stressed less about being a nontraditional family and spent more time enjoying them because the reality is that nontraditional families CAN raise some pretty amazing kids.
Parenting outside of the traditional family is often seen as a negative thing, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. According to a Pew Research survey, 40% of today’s kids are raised outside of the traditional family structure. While some people might point to this fact as evidence of why society is going downhill, this content will show you that that is just not the case.
As a child psychologist who has worked with families of all different kinds, I can tell you with great certainty that it’s not WHAT your family looks like; it’s HOW you parent that makes all the difference. And what do I mean by functional? In my experience, the goal of most families is to create an environment that is positive and supportive where everyone in the family feels free to pursue their natural talents and interests.
When you’re done reading this article, you’ll feel encouraged knowing that non-traditional families can be just as functional as traditional ones. We’ll talk about what being a non-traditional family means, why it isn’t a negative thing, and the habits that need to be present for any family to work.
Definition of a Successful Family
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of discussing family types, I think it’s important to have a clear understanding of the overall goal of the family and what it means to have a successful family.
My definition of a successful family doesn’t involve how cute or adventurous the family looks like in their Instagram pictures. It’s not about how successful the parents are, how big their house is, and it isn’t based on how many after-school activities the kids excel in.
My definition of a successful family involves a bit more depth. I believe a successful family is one where all the members feel important and respected, feel free to pursue their natural talents and interests, and support each other when pursuing these passions and interests.
Am I implying that a successful family is one that is perfect? Where no one argues or is unhappy?
Absolutely not! Successful and functional families go through their fair share of ups and downs – I know mine did – but they still treat each other with respect and support while going through these challenges. They always keep the overall goal of supporting each other as their main priority when going through these hard times.
Definition of the Nontraditional Family
For the most part, the term traditional family describes a two-parent family with a mother and father raising their biological children.
So, a non-traditional family is any type of family that falls outside that definition. Single-parent families. Divorced families. Gay/lesbian families. Adoptive families. Grandparents raising grandkids. These are all examples of a non-traditional family.
Because of the increase in the numbers of nontraditional family types such as single parenting, adults choosing never to have kids, and other family types, many large data-tracking organizations have declared that there is no longer one dominant family type. The PEW research center states,
“Parents today are raising their children against a backdrop of increasingly diverse and, for many, constantly evolving family forms. By contrast, in 1960, the height of the post-World War II baby boom, there was one dominant family form. At that time, 73% of all children were living in a family with two married parents in their first marriage. By 1980, 61% of children were living in this type of family, and today less than half (46%) are.”
Why Some People Assume Nontraditional Parenting Can’t Work – and Why They’re Wrong
There is a stigma associated with nontraditional families. I know because I’ve experienced it.
Let me share a story of when I was newly divorced. One of the hardest things about divorce is telling people about this change in your family. People start to wonder why they don’t see one of the parents as much or pick up on the fact that the kids now live in two different homes.
One day when I was dropping my kids off at their elementary school, one of the parents asked why they hadn’t seen the kids’ dad for a while. I know they meant well, as my ex was well-liked by the other parents at the school, so I wasn’t initially offended by this question.
When I told this parent that my ex and I decided to divorce, they instantly asked how the kids were doing with the change. I told them the truth – that they seemed to be adjusting well, and I hadn’t noticed anything that I should be overly concerned about.
This parent then said to me, “Well, just give it some time,” insinuating that at some point my kids were going to develop a case of lifelong and permanent “loser syndrome.” This negative assumption is what led to my unnecessary stress when I could have been enjoying my family more.
Both recent research and a mountain of lived evidence show that it isn’t the family type that creates happy families and good kids but the habits families use on a consistent basis.
Let’s talk about the research first. There are hard facts describing the hardships that nontraditional families face. Still, you have to keep in mind that just being a nontraditional family doesn’t automatically force these hardships to happen. These hardships are found in both traditional and nontraditional family types but are more commonly associated with nontraditional family types.
There’s a difference between causation and correlations. Causation is when a change in one factor automatically creates a change in another factor. For example, When I reach my hand over and begin petting my cat, Leonardo DiCatrio, he automatically begins to purr (and then begs for more when I attempt to take my hand away). He didn’t start purring until I began petting him.
But correlation is slightly different. It means that two factors have a relationship, but one factor doesn’t necessarily cause the other. Just like when Leo runs up the stairs with me sometimes. He doesn’t do this every time I walk upstairs – sometimes he’s sleeping or better occupied watching the neighborhood birds outside the window. He also goes up the stairs when I’m not around. But LOTS of times I go upstairs, Leo follows me. That’s an association, but not causation.
Now let’s apply this concept to nontraditional parenting and how this parenting style doesn’t automatically CAUSE hardships. These families often experience more challenges than traditional family types – and being aware of these associations can help us eliminate some of these challenges within our own nontraditional families.
For example, single parenting is often associated with younger and less educated parents who have fewer financial resources to use within the family. This doesn’t mean that all single parents fit this mold. Still, many do, and the hardship here is that these families might not have the ability to take advantage of certain resources like after-school activities, good schools, or college-prep courses that could set their kids up for a successful future.
Another example is that households headed up by gay and lesbian parents are associated with kids with more instances of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. While researchers have shown this association, they are also able to pinpoint the reason behind this higher case of mental health suffering. It’s not because having a gay or lesbian parent CAUSES mental health problems, but it’s due to the stigma forced upon these family members that causes much of the anxiety and depression.
The hardship, in this case, is that these families often feel different or excluded from common family functions or activities, so they might avoid these activities altogether.
The bottom line is that if we know these hardships are associated with nontraditional families – but these families aren’t the cause of these hardships – then we can work within the family to alleviate these difficulties.
How can we do that?
One way is to focus on the definition of a successful family that I introduced before. ANY family that prioritizes respect for its members, encourages them to pursue their interests and provides support is bound to be a successful family – no matter what that family looks like or what challenges they face.
Remember, successful parenting isn’t about how cute your family looks on Instagram, how big the family car is, or where the kids go to school; it’s about raising good kids who feel loved and supported by their parents and who feel free to pursue their natural talents and interests. Any type of family can pursue this goal.
Believe me, as a child psychologist who has seen her fair share of all kinds of families, I have witnessed both traditional and nontraditional families struggle because they lacked one or more of the fundamentals of the successful family definition. And the corollary is also true. I’ve seen both traditional and nontraditional families flourish because they embodied the successful family definition.
My own family is a good example. I tried to focus on those three important elements, and while my family structure is nontraditional, my ex-husband and I were able to raise some pretty great young adults, and we were able to remain friends during the process.
Important Elements That Must be Present to Make ANY Family Successful
So how can traditional AND nontraditional families live up to my definition of a successful family? Let’s discuss that now.
First, be clear on your personal Passions, Values, and Beliefs (PVBs). PVBs are the essential elements that families use to guide their parenting decisions. And every family has different PVBs – and that’s ok.
For example, one family might value close friendships and personal challenges. They might be passionate about sports and believe that “teamwork makes the dream work.” Therefore, this family uses their PVBs to make decisions that prioritize social and sporting activities. In addition, they might spend a lot of time pursuing personal athletic challenges and support each person in the family when they pursue their athletic interests.
When families know what’s important to them, making important decisions becomes easier.
I think this concept is so important for families that I’ve devoted a whole podcast and worksheet to this. Check them out.
Love and Support
Secondly, make sure everyone in the family feels loved, knows that they are an important part of the family and that their natural talents and interests are supported.
I’ve found that many parents take this element for granted. They assume that their kids (and their partner for that matter) know that they are loved, but I can’t tell you how many times I get a teen in my office who swears to me that their parents don’t love them.
Because their parents get too busy with “life stuff,” these kids feel like they are the lowest priority in their parents’ lives.
Successful and functional parents make it a habit to prioritize showing their kids that they love them by spending time with them, really listening to them, and being interested in their child’s interests (even if you think their interests are “stupid” or “dumb”).
You’ve GOT to make time for that.
Consistent Habits That Build Connection
The secret to ensuring that your child feels your love and support is through creating habits that encourage consistent connection and communication. Habits create a built-in structure to reinforce your PVBs and ensure that you’re giving your child the attention they need.
There are 3 different levels of parenting habits that you should consider. These levels are: daily, routine, and special family habits.
Daily family habits bring you into contact with your child for a short time every day. Some obvious examples are eating dinner together and tucking a young child into bed at night. Some less common examples can be checking in with a teen each night before bed, taking the dog on a walk together in the afternoons, or riding to school in the car together.
These are great daily excuses to connect, so use them to your advantage and don’t get buried in your phone or distracted by personal chores.
Routine habits aren’t performed daily but are performed regularly. For example, sitting down together to watch a favorite show when it comes on live each week, working together to complete chores as a family on the weekend, or participating in your child’s extracurricular activity or interest. These activities also serve to build or maintain a positive parent-child connection.
Finally, special family habits take place only once in a while and are usually triggered by something. These habits can be triggered by the presence of a holiday, an event, or something else. For example, the Christmas season can include so many special family habits, from visiting Santa to decorating the tree together as a family to laughing together about the Elf on The Shelf’s antics.
Another example of a special habit is when the family connects over an interest. I’ll use an example from my family that I talk about a lot. My son and I connect over Star Wars, and one of my habits to connect with him gets triggered when there is a new Star Wars movie or tv show. I use this trigger as a reminder to take a break from my busy life and schedule time to watch the show with him. In addition (as many of you know), my son and I always attend the Star Wars Celebration convention each year they have it. This event is so much fun, AND it provides the nudge I need to take time out of my busy life and connect with him.
Now, I know it gets to be REALLY challenging sometimes to give your child this attention, so I’ve got some great upcoming articles to help you build this connection with your child so be sure to get on my email list to get my new content ASAP.
Support For The Development of Natural Talents and Interests
One of the biggest factors that I’ve seen that leads to healthy self-esteem, confidence, and parent-child connection is when parents prioritize helping their child discover and develop their natural talents and interests.
Now some kids just know from early on what they’re good at, and they just have a natural drive to spend time on that interest. That’s great! That means your job is a little easier because you don’t have to spend time helping them explore possible interests. Still, you do need to devote time to helping them manage any performance anxiety, perfectionism, or how to accept winning or defeat gracefully.
Many other kids, though, need a push from their parents to discover their natural talents and interests. This could be because the child has some bad tech habits and prefers to spend their time in front of a screen, or they just don’t know how to explore their interests, so that’s where YOU come in. You need to make it a priority to spend regular time encouraging your child’s interests.
Finally, there’s nothing that teaches a life lesson better than modeling the behavior you want your child to adopt in front of them. It’s important for you to model participating in your own passions and interests for two reasons. First, this shows your child that this is an important life-long skill that starts in childhood and proceeds throughout adulthood. Sometimes, kids get the wrong impression that parents push them to develop hobbies and interests only because it looks good on college applications or gives them something to do. However, the life lesson here is that developing talents and interests just makes us interesting people, and interesting people have happier lives and attract better friends.
Second, it allows your child to have the opportunity to practice supporting other people in pursuing their own goals. Teach your child an abundance mentality – one where encouraging other people’s accomplishments doesn’t take away from their own successes because there is enough accomplishment to go around for everyone.
So there you have it.
If you parent within a nontraditional parenting structure like I do, hopefully, after reading this article, you feel less stressed about ruining your kids, and more encouraged that you are on the right track!
Both research and lived experience shows us that it’s not WHAT your family looks like, but HOW you use the basic elements that create a functional and successful family. By concentrating on ensuring that all family members feel important and respected, free to pursue their passions and interests, and supported through challenges, any family type – both traditional and nontraditional – can create a happy and successful family.
What To Do Next
So before moving on from this article, download The Ultimate Guide to Making Better Parenting Decisions that I was telling you about earlier. After going through the exercises in this workbook, you’ll experience far less stress when making parenting decisions because you’ll now have a blueprint for making all your decisions – and these decisions will be based on YOUR personal passions, values, and beliefs.
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