When Kids Prefer the Fun Parent In A Divorce

How Do I Compete When My Ex Is The “Fun” One?

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.

ding 5 comments on “When Kids Prefer the Fun Parent In A Divorce

  1. I definitely deal with this and boy does it hurt at times. None of my friends or family deal with this, either still married, the missing spouse has passed or is a complete deadbeat and is not in their life at all. Not that some of those are more desirable, but it makes it difficult to talk about, which is why I came here 🙂 My son saw his father for 3 hours last night. That’s one of 3 days this month and he is the classis Disney Dad. Video games and any food he asks for all day. When Grandma, who lives with them tries to discipline, she is in turn corrected and now my son thinks its acceptable to talk down to her. He tries to pull that with me sometimes, and certainly throws more fits after initially returning from his dads, but I just keep doing what I have to do to raise a respectable young man. As for bad talking? Oh I do it naturally, but never around my son. I can’t stand the guy, but he’s good with our son when they’re together – even if it’s mayhem. I couldn’t crush his admiration. If he was a straight wicked guy, that’s another story. But I bite my tongue and just smile when my son goes on about what he did with dad or when he prefers to be at dad’s house. After listening to him champion his dad aaaaaall the way to school this morning because HIS dad did this and he wanted HIS dad to pick him up, I smiled, held back tears, dropped him off and then had a pity party in the car! Lol I know my son loves me, he prefers me 9 out of 10 times, but I am human. I slapped myself out of it, told myself to get over it and then drove home. It really is hurt pride and nothing more. I can’t control my ex or my son’s reaction, but I promise you this, throughout my son’s life, he will never question if I love him and I will always do what’s best for him, even if it is being the “bad cop” sometimes.

    • Neenah – It sounds like you’re doing a fantastic job in the face of this very difficult parenting setup. It can feel pretty lonely out there, so if you can find someone to talk with about your feelings, that could provide some relief for you. I truly believe there is a payoff for you when your son is older and has some insight and appreciation for all of your efforts. Hang in there!

  2. Thank you so much Dr. Rutherford! I think venting alone was a huge help!! But feeling confident to stay the course none the less.

    Thanks again 🙂

  3. I am a mother of 2 ( 11 year old boy and 15 year old girl)
    Divorced for almost 4 1/2 years now. I have recently been experiencing this same type of situation. I have taken care of my son since before he was born basically on my own. No help with discipline or school from his father – ever. Now that we have been divorced and living in different homes for over 4 years my ex gets my son on the weekends -since school is out for summer it has been just about every weekend, usually friday evening through monday morning. This schedule is new though, at first he barely saw our son- once or twice every 2 weeks if that. This passed year has been more often which I am happy my son gets to spend time with his father but I do get frustrated when he returns home. He was just diagnosed with adhd this passed school year towards the end of the year. So it has been appointment after appointment, meeting after meeting with the school since he was diagnosed. We all are learning more about it and what we can do to help my son because he was struggling in school last year. This year has me stressing because he just started in this school district last year and now he will be going to middle school which will be anther year of being in a new (larger) school mixed with older kids, having a locker and changing classes. When my son is with me it is ( I feel) a normal day to day life. I work then come home, sometimes appointments, then it is dinner, homework, bathes and bed. My children have chores at my house, a bedtime, are not allowed soda or a bunch of junk food. I pay for rent, food, water, electricity, internet – all household expenses. Including any money they need for school or field trips etc. So more often than not if my kids ask for something extra they hear not right now more often than not. My son goes to my ex’s and stays up all night, eats anything and everything he wants, they almost ALWAYS go out for dinner and he gets toys or games he asks for.My daughter sometimes acts like more of a parent when they visit my ex than my ex does with my son. Last week my son asked if we could go to a fast food restaurant, I said not today I don’t have extra money for it right now and my son replies with ” We are always broke”. His school schedule came yesterday in the mail and he began to stress about school, later he was crying in his room and when I asked him why he told me he didn’t feel well (he usually “doesn’t ever feel well the first day after coming home from his dad’s). Later I ready messages between him and his father and my son was sending sad faces telling his dad how much he misses him and how he wishes he could see him right now and even the way one message was phrased it seemed as though he was implying that he wished he could live there. My heart broke into a million pieces. This may sound greedy but all I could think was..really? I was the one who carried you for 9 months, I was the one up all night when you did not feel well or had an ear ache. I was the one who took you to all your doctors appointments and school meetings. I am the one who still comes to check on you at night, make sure you are warm and comfortable. I am the one who checks your homework and helps you with it, the one who helps ( hours sometimes) with studying for a test. I am the one you come to when your belly hurts. I am the one who is here EVERY SINGLE DAY FOR 11 YEARS………..While his dad can sleep in, go out, buy new clothes, eat out for dinner all the time, only pays for a one bedroom apartment where my rent is more expensive than all of his bills combined, he doesn’t have to spend hours fighting about doing homework or making sure my son gets up and ready in time for school, or if gets sick at school – who has to leave work to go get him -ME. I gladly take everything I have done and will always continue to do for my son every day for the rest of my life. But it just hurts when he prefers to be with his “Fun dad”. I keep trying to remind myself that he is only 11 and hopefully one day he will realize I would do anything for him, I have tried to do my best at being the best mother I could be through the good time, tough times, challenging times.That I tried to provide a well rounded structured life for him and tried my best to prepare him for the real world. Even though i couldn’t afford to take him to the fast food restaurants or buy him a new video game every week I hope he realizes one day what truly is important and that he and his sister always has been and always will be the most important in my life. I came across this site while trying to find some guidance on how to deal with this type of situation.

    • Terri – this is a heartbreaking situation. It’s not unusual for 11 year old boys to really want to live with their Dads. The need to identify with a male is very strong. When I read your story, it kept occurring to me that it might be helpful if he spent more time with his Dad on a regular basis – not just the weekend fun Dad. That way he would develop a more realistic view of his father, and more time would be spent around homework, chores, etc. There is nothing more powerful that the “absentee parent” to a child – the child idealizes that parent. I think it might be something to consider. I have no idea if that would work for you, but it might be something to consider on an experimental basis.

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