Sunday, March 29, 2015

When a Parent Has a New Partner

Do You Sing Twinkle?

By Sandra Levins
Illustrated by Bryan Langdo
Magination Press/American Psychological Association
Washington DC, 2010

Reviewed by Laura Harting

Twinkle is the song that Mom always sings to this young boy and his brother every night after reading a book and tucking them into bed.  When Mom remarries and two stepsisters join the family, this child wonders if Mom is sharing this nightly ritual with the  girls. Thinking about this makes for a grumpy morning and a very bad day.  After listening to all of their son's sad and angry feelings, Mom and Dad come up with some good solutions to what originally seemed like insurmountable problems.

This book for preschool and early elementary age children is less about divorce and more about remarriage. It specifically deals with how remarriage creates more changes in a child's life. The book offers strategies for parents to help a child cope with the changes. It encourages the child to share feelings with parents. At the end of the book are two pages of notes to parents about helping children through remarriage, encouraging parents to be receptive to their child’s feelings.

This is a good read-along book for the young child (age 4 to 8) but should only be read when a parent has a new partner and is either contemplating remarriage or has already remarried.

Laura Harting, LCSW, sees young clients at her office in Paoli, Pennsylvania.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Action Steps for Youth Workers

The Children of Divorce: Loss of Family as Loss of Being

By Andrew Root
Baker Academic Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2010

Reviewed by Don Harting

Andrew Root writes like the well-educated man he is.  Root holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary and teaches in the youth and family ministry department at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. His trendy, youth-friendly website,, describes him as a professor, author, speaker, and thinker. He has written 10 other books, all falling loosely within the category of youth ministry.

The Children of Divorce appears to be written for very educated readers, perhaps clergy members with master’s or doctoral degrees in divinity. The six ministry leaders who recommend his book on the back cover all work at seminaries, universities, or youth agencies. Root spends quite a bit of time examining divorce from the perspective of famous philosophers and theologians. The sources he draws from most heavily include a British sociologist named Anthony Giddens (born 1938), a German philosopher named Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), and a Swiss theologian named Karl Barth (1886-1968).

Root has also steeped himself in the current literature about children of divorce in late 20th and early 21st century America. He makes frequent reference to some of the leading researchers and writers, including Stephanie Coontz, Elizabeth Marquardt, Sarah McClanahan, David Royko, Gary Sandefur, Stephanie Staal, Judith Wallerstein, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.

Root’s major point – which he returns to repeatedly – is that parental divorce shakes the very core of a child’s being in a way that few other losses, including death, can match. This is so, he argues, because divorce represents a disintegration of the union that brought the child into the world in the first place.  Here’s a good example, from page 50:

“When divorce strikes it impacts young people at the level of their lived world. It radically changes their social environment, but more significantly, it rearranges their inner concept of the environment of the self. They have known their ‘I’ through the lived world of their mom and dad. The child’s very ‘I’ knows itself, but more radically, it is at all because the social environment of Mom and Dad provides the ‘I’ of the child a lived world she has taken into herself and made her own. When her social environment implodes, her lived world is shaken, and to such a degree that she is forced to even question her ‘I.’

Here’s another example, from page 53:

“Divorce thrusts the child into anxiety because it strikes the dependability of the social unit that is responsible for his or her being. It thrusts a division within the child’s own identity. He is cared for and need not fear for his next meal, for example, but he is anxious, for the very union that is responsible for his existence has regretted and aborted its unity of being. He is because they are. But now the they is not and will never be again. What then is the meaning of his existence when the they is now divided?”

A key philosophical term Root uses often is ontology. Webster’s tells us this is a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being. Root frequently asserts that divorce threatens a child’s being, existence, and ontological security.

A Critique

I can’t argue with the author’s central point that divorce strikes deep at the root – get it? -- of a person’s being. This is undoubtedly true, and sad, because divorce has become so widespread in America today. Reading this book has been a painful reminder of divorce-related hurts in my own family. However, Root makes the ontological point so many times that it becomes a bit repetitive. Perhaps this is forgivable, because Root is a child of divorced parents and at some level might have still been processing his loss as he wrote this book. His mother and father divorced when he was in graduate school and engaged to be married. Root’s fiancee’s parents also announced their divorce about the same time, leading to a most unusual circumstance at the time of their wedding: one marriage was beginning while two others had just ended.

Another critique: despite several references to the field of psychology, I’m disappointed not to see Root provide a fuller discussion of the normal human response to loss. In my own healing journey, a major Aha! moment came when I realized that there was a term for the cluster of intermittent, uncomfortable, and sometimes baffling emotions I had been feeling since my parents broke up, and that term was grief.

Suggested Ministry Initiatives

Root suggests action steps for youth workers and children’s ministers in the sixth and final chapter. They are broken down into four parts, each corresponding to an important theme of the book. For example, the concept of mirroring is central to Barth’s theory of imago Dei (Latin for image of God). In a nutshell, this theory holds that man derives his being only in relationship with God, yet at the same time, God is only made real in the world – you might say mirrored or reflected – through the actions of his beloved creatures. So seeing and being seen become important ways to affirm a person’s being. Root suggests using the concept of mirroring to help strengthen the weakened sense of self experienced by many children of divorced parents. According to Root, an action step might include approaching tweens and teens to communicate your understanding of the situation. A long drawn-out encounter might be counterproductive, but a brief “Hey, I know this is a really hard time,” sends a message that the child exists and is visible.

Root also encourages allowing multiple ways for kids to express their pain, such as art, drama, or discussion. He strongly suggests holding a panel discussion, allowing kids from divorced families to speak of their experience. “These shared stories of pain and questioning, when spoken, have the power to become a significant part of the narrative quilt of the community.”

The author’s other suggestions include:
·       Work to know the stories of the young people with whom you work.
·       Spend energy convening places for adults in the congregation to listen to and speak with young people. Inform adults of the importance of seeing and hearing young people and allow young people to see and hear them.
·       Assess your routines and rituals, helping young people take ownership of them and make sure they are hospitable to young people. Open space may be just as meaningful as programs.
·       Provide opportunities for young people to pray with and for adults in the congregation. The key is that this prayer becomes an act of seeing and hearing one another before God. This must be done with great care, and in such a way that it possesses great significance.
·       Weekly programs have power not just in their entertainment value, but also in their ability to become routines and rituals for kids whose home lives may be chaotic and unpredictable.
·       Work with the congregation to find ways to bless young people, but don’t allow this to become an empty activity.
·       Celebrate juvenile rites of passage, such as Boy Scout achievements, graduations, basketball games, school plays.
·       Provide children with space and ways to share their gifts with the community, such as drawing worship bulletin covers, painting pictures to hang in the church building, and performing music during worship.
·       Provide young people with a variety of ways to tell their stories. Allow these stories to be painful if necessary, but also remember to celebrate and care for one another in gladness and joy.

My Take on These Ideas

Of the suggestions made above, the easiest, cheapest, and quickest way to start might be with prayer. Simply to break silence and acknowledge before God that a number of children in the community have been hurt by parental divorce and need healing would send a powerful message of affirmation to the affected kids and strengthen their sense of self, as well as their sense of belonging within the congregation. Certain times may be better than others for a prayer like this to be uttered aloud in public. Perhaps such a prayer would be appropriate any time the congregation is focused on the needs of children, for example, when the appointed Scripture reading touches on Jesus’ teachings related to children, or Isaiah’s prophecy of comfort for those who mourn. Another appropriate time for such a prayer may be during a healing service, when many other sorts of hurts, harms, and sorrows are brought before the Great Physician.

The panel discussion idea has merit – panel discussions are fairly easy to organize and can be adapted to a wide variety of topics, including healing from parental divorce. But these events need to be carefully managed.  I do not think the panel discussion idea as it is described in Root's book is practical or workable. Embarrassment, hurt feelings, and negative reverberations could result if participants’ grief and pain spill out in an uncontrolled and public manner. Two key points would be to focus the discussion around a positive theme, e.g., how adult panelists have healed from their parents’ divorces; and to select these panelists from outside the congregation. This way, if panelists choose to reveal details of how they’ve been hurt they will not implicate others who may be sitting in the audience. Such a panel discussion would be more complicated and expensive to produce, so it might be a piece to add later.


Don Harting is a medical writer living in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

This Book is a Classic

It's Not Your Fault, KoKo Bear

By Vicki Lansky
Illustrated by Jane Prince
Book Peddlers, Minnetonka, Minnesota, 1998

Reviewed by Laura Harting

Illustration by Jane Prince
Written in the late 90s for the preschool and early elementary aged child, this book is a classic.  I don’t think it will ever go out of style.

Though the main focus of the book is to assure children that divorce is not their fault, it also addresses a child’s feelings, the difficulty of having two homes, and why parents divorce. KoKo Bear struggles with drawing a family picture at school and with forgetting things at Dad's or Mom’s house. KoKo Bear also shares mad, sad, and scared feelings and wishes they all still lived together. 

This is a book to read with your child. It asks questions to encourage discussion about feelings and there are plenty of helpful notes for parents in small type at the bottom of every page.  It is important to note that an emphasis near the end of the book is on telling KoKo Bear that they are still a family. While more recent books focus on the child now being a part of two families, this book states that MaMa and PaPa and KoKo Bear are still a family, just a family apart. 

I like how the book addresses feelings and why parents divorce. I like that it focuses on the divorce not being the fault of the child. I like that this is an imaginary family of bears, which maintains a helpful emotional distance for a young child. However, I found myself a bit confused by the idea that the family is still a family, only a family that lives apart. Perhaps your child will not find that confusing and may find it reassuring.

Laura Harting, LCSW, sees young clients at her office in Paoli, Pennsylvania.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Relatable and Readable

Dear Mr. Henshaw

By Beverly Cleary
HarperCollins Publishers
New York, 2000

Reviewed by Laura Harting

Illustration by Paul O. Zelinsky
Despite the fact the first edition of this book dates back to 1983 and kids do not write letters much any more, I have to give this book a high rating.  It is extremely well written.

Illustrated to appeal to a child in late elementary or early middle school, this book of fiction tells the story of a young boy whose father and mother separate and divorce. Leigh has a school assignment to write to an author and ask three questions. He chooses to write to Boyd Henshaw, the author of his favorite book, a dog training guide he has read many times. The author responds and then asks him several questions in return. Much to Leigh’s dismay his mother limits his access to TV until he answers all of the questions the author has asked.  After several letters, Leigh finds writing to be something that is not so bad and takes Henshaw’s suggestion to write in a journal. Leigh’s journal entries describe his life, home situation, feelings, and thoughts about many things, especially his parents' divorce.

Despite the age of this book, I think children today will find it relatable and readable.


Laura Harting, LCSW, sees young clients at her office in Paoli, Pennsylvania.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Young Poets Speak Powerfully

Broken Hearts . . . Healing
Young Poets Speak Out on Divorce

Edited by Tom Worthen, PhD
Poet Tree Press
Logan, Utah, 2001

Reviewed by Laura Harting 

Copyright 2001 Poet Tree Press
This book for teenagers is a powerful collection of poems written by young people ages 9 to 18.   The poetry takes the reader from heartbreak to resilience as these young poets share their feelings and experiences of divorce in a particularly poignant way.  Designed to offer the reader a place to come where he or she is not alone in the pain of divorce, this book accomplishes that task. The pain is real and the feelings are raw, but the sense of camaraderie written in the pages and felt by the reader are somehow comforting. 
Appropriate for middle and high school students, this is a good book to read when the divorce is new and life feels chaotic and painful. Divided into chapters based on themes, it can and should be read a little bit at a time, rather than from start to finish. This book can be picked up and read for a minute or for an hour.  Read one poem and put it down, or read 25 poems that vary in how they connect with the reader’s experience.
I like how this book gives the children of divorce the power to share their voices. Rather than adults writing about what divorce is like for children, the children are the writers. That makes this different from any other book I have read or reviewed. 



Laura Harting, LCSW, sees young clients at her office in Paoli, Pennsylvania.