“As a kid growing up with split parents…”

Usually I tease you, gentle reader, with the ellipsis in a post title: “wait till you read the rest!” I implicitly promise.

This time the three dots are all I have; they end what I wrote down on a back page of my gradebook. The rest of the sentence was, presumably, okay, so I felt no need to preserve it for the ages.

The word choice in question is certainly let’s-say unorthodox: on its face, the phrase invites us to picture two adults whose bodies have been cleft in twain—producing four half-parents. Or perhaps the individuals are only partly split, like strands of hair with split ends. This is a funny picture, a moment of laughter the reader does want to preserve for the ages. A cartoonist could draw it.

But any reader, including this willfully obtuse professor (“It’s my job to misunderstand you if I can!”), knows exactly what my student meant: while she was growing up, her parents did not cohabitate. Part of the time they may have been only separated; in all probability they eventually divorced. If when they called it quits one even left town—and if they passed the child back and forth but never themselves sat down together, talked in a friendly way, got together with their offspring for a holiday or snack or college visit—then they completely split up. My student could have referred to this as a “split household,” or could have said “as a kid growing up with parents who had split up…,” both more orthodox ways of saying that.

(I could quibble with the “growing up with,” suggesting that it might be taken to mean the parents were growing up along with the kid, but I don’t choose to quibble with it. The rest of the words are more worthy of remark—I want to focus on the main feature.)

“Split parents” is so efficient: at once communicative not only of their physical and marital situation but also of a certain forlornness, wrongness, that the child must have felt. It is also to-the-point, concise. From the writer’s point of view it keeps the emphasis of the essay where it belongs, too: on the “kid.” Trying to be more factually precise or verbally conventional would have taken more time, more space, and more care than the bald fact merited; she was writing about herself, not about them.

I don’t think my student spent much time (if any) on the phrasing of her idea; I think she put it down straight from her head. But I think she said what she meant.

So I think this “error” must be let stand, especially in a sentence that also refers to a “kid”: that is, in a sentence that is generally informal in tone and diction.

Sometimes you have to let them be poets, even if that isn’t their intention. Sometimes their “error” invites you to take a fresh look at the language, and at the reality they are offering to share. Sometimes you teach, and sometimes you learn.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

16 responses to ““As a kid growing up with split parents…”

  • Douglas E Miller

    Maybe Dad split & left her with Mom. Maybe both Mom & Dad split & left her with grandparents. I agree that it’s good, poetically overloaded phrasing.

  • sarahjesusnlily

    I suppose it depends on which way they were split. If they were split vertically there would be no problem, but if they were split horizontally? The pictures that come to mind are both amusing and strange. Hopefully your student would get the upper half…

  • ainsleymp230

    my parents too were divorced growing up, you covered some major topics.

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Reading and seeing into their heads – that’s the fun ( or sad or terrifying sometimes) part.
    Now I am curious. Split. Like he/she split ( meaning left quickly and unexpectedly). Or split personalities…or split time share the kids where they were one place for part of the week, then moved to the other house for the rest of the week. (Family judges have gotten so creative)
    If the writer is supposed to intrigue the readers and make them want to read and find out more, she did that. It is to the point concise. Split. Hard on the child.

  • VAVA

    Split is a split and any definition would not serve the purpose . The impact on children and family takes years to get the rail on track

  • webgirl264

    My parents are close to a split and they always blame me for their fights. It’s all on me, the youngest kid, to keep them together. I feel so pressured. That’s why I write it helps me vent about stuff that I can’ tell other people.

    • RAB

      I have an apple tree that is over 100 years old (I’ve never seen an apple tree so TALL!). In the last few years it’s been developing a crack between the top two principal branches, but my arborist said we had to wait until there was a big apple crop before we braced it, because anything we did before that wouldn’t hold against the weight of a full crop. So one year there were no apples at all; last year there was a rather sparse crop. But THIS year, a bumper crop–it seems as though there are more apples than leaves! And the weight of the apples opened the split wide–and one of those main branches split completely off. Once the split started, in other words, subsequent events did what they were going to do, and my arborist and I could no more keep that tree whole than an ant with a piece of Scotch tape could have. It’s the same with relationships, I think. You may be blamed, but the split that’s starting is in the relationship, and you’re just one of the apples. Writing is a good way to deal with pressures and feelings you can’t do much about, a way to stay strong on the outside while you privately release the pressures and live through the feelings. Best wishes to you. The apples are, by the way, very very delicious….

  • webgirl264

    My parents have made up after I told them how I am feeling. They agreed not to blame over their fights. And hopefully try not to have fights.

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