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Lessons on RI from an Outstanding Single-Parent

by John Trent, PhD

If you’re a single-parent reading this, hopefully, you have picked up The Relationally Intelligent Child, our really important book for your child or children. While we’ve written the book to relate to parents of all ages and situations, we also want to add ideas/examples/stories that could specifically encourage you.

To do that, start by thinking about a single-parent (besides yourself) you’ve known who you feel has done a great job in helping their children develop relational intelligence. And while you’re thinking about all that person can coach you on, let me (John) introduce you to a single-parent I’m incredibly grateful for. My mom.

At two months old, I wasn’t old enough to realize the immensity of what happened the day my mother came home and found the note saying my father was leaving. (None of us would see him again until I was late into high school.).

I’m sure there were tears that day. It’s tough being a single parent today. In many ways it was just as tough for her. That’s because these were the 1950’s. A time when divorce was extremely rare and jobs that could support three children were often closed to women. Now she’d have to find a good job with no work history. And had no family or close friends in state. Meaning, she’d have to figure out, starting that first day, what to do with three very young boys.

What I do remember, and thank the Lord for often, is a mother who was simply world-class at modeling and reinforcing each aspect of Relational Intelligence. Not perfectly. No parent is perfect. And, you don’t have to try and be perfect either. But while there was always a struggle for her to make ends meet. And, like many single-parent homes, there were things we didn’t have growing up. But what we had in abundance was what mattered most. Especially having three rambunctious boys see a mom who didn’t just turn us over to a school to teach us everything. Someone who took seriously the fact that relationships were crucial – what we’d call relational intelligence today.

I’ll share more “Zoa” stories in later articles for single-parents. But let me start by sharing with you two things my mother did in modeling and teaching RI skills. And if my sharing brings to mind a single-parent you’ve seen who did a great job of teaching elements of RI to their children, we’ve love for you to send us what you learned in watching them do relationships well! PLEASE also share your permission and theirs (if they’re living) for us to sure your story with others. We can’t share every story, but we’ll let you if and when we post your “with permission” story).

Two ways a single-parent mom lived out and instilled RI in her kids

1) You teach best what you have most to learn

That old saying, “You teach best what you most need to learn” I think applied to my mother when it came to RI. To refer to the animal personality model in the book, on the day my dad walked out, as a single-parent she suddenly had to become the whole “ZOO!” Meaning, she had to have the strength of a Lion to keep pace with and direct three boys, all under 3. (My older brother, my twin and myself). But she also needed to be the encouraging, fun-loving Otter. And she needed the warmth and natural attachment skills of a Golden Retriever to deal with all the emotional and physical bumps and bruises active boys get. And someone had to be the family Beaver and be consistent with discipline and bedtimes, make sure all the bills got paid and we got to school clean, on time and with our homework done. (Or mostly done in my case).

That’s a daunting job trying to reflect all those strengths as one person. But what I know for sure is she worked hard on being the best version of who she could be. Not focusing on who she wasn’t. Again, she wasn’t perfect . But I can see now, she took all 5 elements of RI to heart in her own life first. Which then gave her a powerful teaching model for us as well.

For example, she took “secure attachment” to heart in her own life first. Her husband may have bailed out, but she chose to have an unshakable faith in Jesus who promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” Hebrews 13:5. And from that base of unshakable security, she built a base of secure attachment into our lives.


Or when it came to “unwavering resilience” we heard her tell the story of how she failed her typing course when she first started business school. Not just failed the course. But was told by her teacher to just quit school because she’s never make it. Yet how she went back to her teacher the next day. Asked to take the typing course a second time. And that time, she passed that class and all her other business classes. Leading to that first really meaningful job that could support the four of us. In short, “unwavering resilience” wasn’t just something she wanted for us boys. But something she chose to live out. She was there to encourage us to “get back up” when we fell down. But it was from a place where she’d learned and lived out resilience from the trials and challenges she faced.

RI is great to teach to children. But for a single-parent, you can also look at each of those 5 elements as handrails to help you get moving in your life. Like the last flight you were on. Put on your RI mask first – and then your children’s as you all move towards a special future.

2. The courage to “risk” and “explore” new things

Another element of RI my Mom lived out in front of us was “fearless exploration.” Like we shared in the book, I can see how it was her “secure attachment” to the Lord and to us that was foundational. And from that base of security, in an insecure world, my mom would take small and big risks. Like the day she decided we boys needed something that she’d never done as a child or adult. Go camping.

My mom (Zoa) heard how camping could help bond families. So late one afternoon, we heard a horn honking outside at the time mom usually came home from work. We ran outside and saw my mother’s small, Ford Falcon dragging a tiny “teardrop” trailer attached to the back of her 4-cylinder car. Today, they wouldn’t let you put a hitch on such a small car. Back then, it became what we used once a month for years to tow a small trailer. Each time, from Phoenix to Rocky Pointe, Mexico.

It was a 6-hour drive from our driveway to the beach. Which, on our first camping trip, ended with my mom randomly pulling into a camping area she’d found. It was a large campsite that was literally on the hard-packed beach. When we got there, there wasn’t another camper or car. It was getting dark, so we hurried to try and get our camp set up. Everything we tried to light (lanterns to a camping stove) or put up (tents or tarps) didn’t work or stay standing very long. We finally gave up and went to bed in the pitch dark after our cereal and milk dinner. Cold and hungry inside our tiny trailer.

The next morning, God gave us an incredible gift. Without exaggeration, around noon, close to 20 cars, campers and trucks pulled into our camping area. They were all part of a “camping club” from Phoenix. Within minutes, they were all building campfires, setting up tents that stayed upright. Soon the smell of bacon and eggs cooking on camp stoves drifted our way.

Picture four heads sticking out of a slightly opened door of a small trailer, watching dads and moms and kids having fun. All getting unpacked. That’s when my mom made one of those “fearless exploration” decisions - and got out of the trailer.

She walked over to the family that had parked the closest to us. A family that would in fact end up being some of our closest, life-long friends. But that day, Zoa introduced herself to a family of strangers. And she asked if – after they were done setting up – could someone perhaps they show us how to get our camp stove started?

Within a short time, several families came over. Moms and Dads helping us get our tent and stove set up and breakfast cooking. Introducing themselves to us and to their kids who were around our age – kids we ran around with all weekend. On Sunday afternoon, as everyone packed up to head back to Phoenix, they all came over – as in all the families. Standing around our “teardrop” trailer, they “officially” invited my Mom to join the Cholla Bay Wading and Camping Club. (The unofficial name they’d given themselves). We were the only single-parent family in the club. But no one said a thing about it. Or in the years to come. And it would have never happened if my Mom hadn’t had that “fearless exploration” courage to get out of the trailer, go introduce herself, and ask for help. A choice for her and again, a great model for us in “fearlessly” exploring new situations.

I could go on and on with stories about a single-parent mom who did a great job of modeling RI. And I will share more “Zoa” stories later. But I hope those two examples above are a good place starting place to encourage single-parents reading this book. Men and women who like my mom – are doing their best to model and coach their kids towards relational intelligence.

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