Is Being a “Disneyland Dad” Such A Terrible Thing?

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I’m one of those “Disneyland Dads” who doesn’t get to see my kids very often. Why should I waste our precious time on homework or chores?

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DR. RUTHERFORD: I would suspect this may be a common feeling among divorced parents who share custody and don’t see their kids on a daily basis.

MOLLY: We received this submission from a father in Seattle. He elaborated that he only gets to see his children for six hours per week, so “every second counts.” He explains, “They still have to obey, but I don’t want to waste precious time on routine things like homework or chores. Why shouldn’t I plan something exciting for us to do together?”

I don’t know, but it seems to me that parenting involves not only doing the fun stuff but also the stuff that isn’t so fun, like reminding your kids to do their homework or teaching them manners or having them clean up their room. If he isn’t doing any of this, doesn’t it put the entire burden on the other parent, the mom?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I was thinking the same thing, and then the children get a distorted view on who is the responsible parent. They are likely not to associate their father with the nuts and bolts of living.

On the one hand, I understand that he has a limited amount of time available to spend with his children and when he sees them he wants to maximize their time together; but on the other hand, doing homework and chores and things like that are part of the everyday life of a child and can very important in terms of social and moral development.

MOLLY: Do you think it’s a bad thing for kids growing up in a divorced household to view their father as a “Disneyland Dad?” If he only gets 6 hours, I understand why he would want to make the most of that time.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Being a “Disneyland Dad” may marginalize the father in the child’s eyes as not a particularly responsible caregiver and perhaps not a person they can turn to when serious issues arise.

MOLLY: That would be the opposite of the effect that this father likely wants. I’m assuming he wants to be close to his children and be associated with having fun so they’ll like him more, but in the end he might realize that his kids will always be more dependent upon his ex-wife for emotional support because she was there day-in and day-out.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Perhaps this can’t be helped due to the awkwardly skewed custody arrangement that he finds himself with. What does 6 hours a week look like? Does it mean school nights? A weekend day? If it means that the kids sleep over at his place on any school nights, then he must make time for homework to be done, establish a decent bedtime, and create a morning routine that gets everyone out the door and to school on time or he will hinder their future success.

If, however, six hours a week translates to Sundays 1pm-7pm, then I think he may be justified in playing the Disneyland Dad role.

In an ideal divorce, it would be helpful to find a balance of responsibilities and play time so that both parents get to have fun with their kids and both parents get to deal with the daily grind of modern life. However, this would mean dividing custodial time and responsibilities more evenly between the parents than they have in this case.

If these parents are dissatisfied about each other’s parenting roles in this divorce, they should look into adjusting the custody agreement accordingly and in a way that reflects the best interests of the children.

The truth is if this Dad is only spends 6 hours a week with his children, his role will necessarily be limited. My advice is to continue to develop his relationship with his children as best he can during his limited contact period.

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MOLLY: This question came from a reader in Michigan. She added that her girlfriend has her son all week and is “responsible for taking him to all his extracurriculars, doing homework, bathing… His two weekends a month that he’s with his Dad are spent lying on the couch eating pizza and playing Wii. On the occasion that the son gets to choose who he wants to be with, guess who he chooses? And it breaks her heart. What can she do?”


Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): 
I can see why she would feel resentful. The famous term for that is the “Disneyland Dad,” where the part-time parent provides all the fun, none of the discipline, and none of the regulation of the child’s life. It’s hard to fault a child for being seduced by short-term stays in a rule-less utopia over the daily grind of school, hygiene, homework, chores, activities, etc.

Even though the child states now that he prefers to be with the father, as time goes by, most children intuitively recognize where they receive the best care and flourish in a more structured environment. Kids do know this deep inside and they will prefer it for the long run even while they may enjoy letting it all go during the short periods spent with the other parent. Unfortunately, though, this attitude can feel hurtful to the primary parent who is doing the majority of the care.

Perhaps the Mom could ease her own work load with the child and try to build in time where they actually have fun together. A visit to a park or the zoo or even just out for ice cream can break up the regular routine and add fun to regular life. She could choose to let somethings go sometimes and not worry quite so much about the work that has to be done.

MOLLY: It’s hard though, don’t I know it! Between bathing and school and homework and activities, our days with kids are jam packed, and I have a husband to help me get everything done.

MOM: Yes it’s true, it is but you don’t want it quite as lopsided as this family is. The truth is she has absolutely no control over what goes on in the ex-husband’s household. She can ask him to help out with the reading and some of the other kinds of chores but she can’t make him follow her household’s routine. If he chooses not to, he won’t. She can only regulate what goes on in her own house. While there are certainly normal, every day things that have to go on in a child’s life, it’s probably worth letting the house get a little messy and if that’s what needs to be sacrificed in the name of having some fun time with your kid.

MOLLY: Should she talk to her son about how she doesn’t always want to be the enforcer parent?

MOM: Yes, she can talk about how that makes her feel and she can ask how it feels to him. It sounds like he says, “Oh, Dad is just the greatest dad in the world.” I  don’t know how long that will last but I think that she should really program in her own life some space where she lets herself have a good time with her kid.

MOLLY: Where they do some fun things!

MOM: Yeah, that’s the only thing she has any real control over. If the beds don’t get made, for example, I think it’s not such a big deal in the broader scope of life.

MOLLY: Of course she also has to remember not to talk badly about the dad (which in this case is probably pretty tough).

MOM: Right, that would be extremely important not to bad-talk him to the kid, and I can see how it might be easy to do because she probably feels pretty resentful. However, it’s best not to bad-talk an absent parent because it will just boomerang back when kid becomes defensive of the father.

MOLLY: Is there anything long-term she needs to think about?

MOM: There are some things that are out of her control in the long term. Her son may grow up and identify with his father, and that may be how he considers his role when he himself is a father. Of course, that’s not going to go over big with his partner.

So, yes, there could be some long-term consequences. It’s hard to know how he’s going to view his mother when he grows up. As he matures, he can look back and realize that his mother is the one who kept him going in all the kinds of everyday issues that have to go on in life. However, he may really hold fast to patterning himself after his father.  His maturity, level of insight, and the life experiences he has with his father while growing up will determine what kind of father he himself will be.

The girlfriend who wrote the plea, can support her partner with encouragement and support for the hard work it takes to be a responsible parent. Maybe she could help the mom have her own fun on her free weekends while the boy is with his father so that she, too, faces the next week recharged and ready to enjoy the time she has with her child.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with a “disneyland” parent. Or Contact Us if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.