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


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?

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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When Your Ex- Is Not The Best Role Model For Your Kids


My kid desperately wants to be like his father (my ex-husband) but his father is not a good role model. What can I do?

@thinkstock_Polka Dot ImagesDR. RUTHERFORD (Molly’s mom): It’s important that a divorced parent is careful about what she says about the other parent to their child.

It would be best if she tried to act neutral and avoided saying outright negative things about the ex-spouse. As the child gets older, he’s likely to figure out what kind of person his father is on his own from observing his father’s behavior.

MOLLY: This question was asked by a mother in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She explained that she is divorced and wants to tell her 9-year old son that he is loved by his dad and that he of course should love his dad, too, but that his father does not always model good behavior due to his drug use and dishonesty, among other things. She doesn’t want to turn her son against his father, but on the other hand, she doesn’t want her son to emulate him either. What should she do?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I don’t think she needs to tell her son to love his dad; that’s really for him to work through. Her job here is to avoid saying negative remarks about her child’s father.

If she is critical of the boy’s father, it will backfire on her as the child will dig in and defend his father to the end. And he will likely also stop talking to her about his dad.

Instead, if she remains neutral, her son will feel freer to express both positive and negative feelings about his dad’s behavior as he witnesses it and experiences the effects.

As the child gets older, he’s likely to want talk to his mother about things he sees and experiences the father doing if he feels safe doing so with her. Her job is to be sympathetic to her son; as events unfold,she shouldn’t ever deny what the father has done but should instead focus on being supportive of the son as he sorts out his relationship with his father.

MOLLY: When should she tell him the truth about his father?

DR. RUTHERFORD: The best time for that is when her son actually asks for the information. While the truth can very important for children to understand, the timing of divulging such information is just as important in terms of the child’s age and if he’s ready to deal with the information. He might not ask for this information until he is a teen, in his twenties, or even older. She should answer her son’s questions about his father honestly and sensitively when they come while remembering that children do not necessarily need to know all of the sordid details about their parents’ bad behavior.

MOLLY: What if the child witnesses some bad behavior, and reports back to his mom. For instance, “Daddy drinks a lot.”

DR. RUTHERFORD: This is when it’s important that you are honest with your child.  Denying the child’s perception of reality is not a good thing because it makes him doubt his own perceptions. If the child is 9 or 10 years old, the mother could answer, “Yeah, I think so too. He loves you very much but he is trying to deal with his problems.”

When the child is a teenager, there’s no denying what’s going on. Kids are smart and observant so I think the important thing is to be honest. Negotiating your child’s relationship with someone over whom you have no control can be challenging, but we do have control over our own behavior. This mom can do the best she can for her son by modeling good behavior herself, not talking badly about her ex-, listening to her son with a sympathetic ear when he needs to talk about his dad, and being available to support her son.

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Do Your Kids Fight With Each Other? You’ll Never Guess What’s Behind It


Are your kids constantly bickering with each other and driving you crazy? Do they always seem to be picking on each other to get a reaction? Why won’t they stop?

Dr. Susan Rutherford addresses what’s going on between your children when they fight with each other… and what you can do it stop it!



Be sure to also check out our newly launched YouTube Channel, Raising Happier Kids for more videos!

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Helping A Toddler Sleep Through The Night


My 22-month old hasn’t slept through the night for a year. What should I do?

DR. RUTHERFORD: There are a couple of things this parent might consider. One is, can she go without a nap?

MOLLY: This was submitted from a mother based in Utah who described that she has a great bedtime routine and her toddler goes to sleep at an appropriate time on her own without any trouble. But inexplicably her little girl “wakes for 2-4 hours every night just talking and playing in her crib. She takes a 1.5 hr nap during the day.” The mom continued to elaborate that she herself is “a light sleeper” so once she’s awoken, even though she doesn’t have to go in her daughter’s room, she can’t fall back asleep and she’s one “exhausted mom.”

DR. RUTHERFORD: I would count that hour and a half nap as part of her sleeping. So her daughter is actually sleeping more than the mom realizes. However it’s not a good pattern to be getting up for a couple of hours each night. Even though she’s entertaining herself, of course the mom is alert and she can’t sleep. The first thing I would do is try taking out the afternoon nap.

When you were 22 months, Molly, you were done napping, too, because you wouldn’t sleep at night. This parent should be prepared to go through a few weeks (or even more) of a difficult pre-dinner “witching hour” until her daughter gets used to not having an afternoon nap, and she may need to put her down for the night a littler earlier than she is used to.

MOLLY: Yes, I would agree that when you eliminate that last nap time for a pre-schooler you have to almost expect that 5 -7pm span of time to be winey and miserable for a while.

DR. RUTHERFORD: That’s what I would suggest this mom start with, and it may be all she needs to do the trick.

MOLLY: The other thing I was thinking that she could do is to get a baby monitor and use it in conjunction with ear plugs. Then she’ll still be able to hear when the child is in distress and making loud noises, but won’t wake up to the light sounds of her playing in the middle of the night. I’m a light sleeper, too, and this set-up worked really well for me.

She also may want to take most of the toys out of the crib so that there isn’t any entertainment available in the middle of the night. Of course don’t take the “lovey” or security blanket/favorite animal. All the sleep experts advise promoting better sleep habits at any age by designating the bed exclusively for sleep.

DR. RUTHERFORD: I would have suggested ear plugs, too, although some parents may not feel comfortable with that idea.

MOLLY: Another thing she might want to consider, maybe not right now but in a few months, is to transition the baby out of the crib and into a toddler bed.

We had the same problem with my little guy when he was two and he began to wake up randomly in the middle of the night. We moved him out of the crib and into a larger toddler bed and he started sleeping through the night again. I wondered if he was simply too big for the crib and would wake himself up when he touched one of the sides.

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My Kids Make It Hard for Me to Work From Home


I work from home and have a hard time separating my work-life from my home-life.

DR. RUTHERFORD: I see this issue is becoming more and more prevalent as technology advances and more and more parents are able to work from home rather than going outside the home to work.

MOLLY: This question was submitted by Jill Smokler, the founder of the highly successful and popular parenting blog, Scary Mommy (I think it’s a must-read for all of us to help keep our sanity and have some good laughs too). Jill is also a New York Times best selling author who brings humor and honesty into the reality of every day parenting with her books Confessions of a Scary Mommy  and Motherhood Comes Naturally (and Other Vicious Lies). We are thrilled to welcome Jill to our blog.
I, too, work from home can relate to this question first-hand. Last year, I hired a babysitter for when my kids would get home from school in hopes that I could try to stay in my office and continue working after 3 pm.
That turned out to be a fantasy as my kids knew I was home and would come into my workspace to climb on me and then refuse to leave my desk. They would get really upset when I tried to send them downstairs with their sitter.
As a result, I often found myself running over to my computer to check emails or complete other tasks while trying to juggle the kids and their needs. Everyone was frazzled and no one felt satisfied.

DR. RUTHERFORD: I remember when that was happening. If I recall correctly, I suggested that when they got home from school you came to greet them and spend the next 10-15 minutes listening to them talk about their day.This would give them a chance to satisfy their need to have immediate contact with you and to connect by sharing their experiences.

I thought you could prepare them a snack, sit at the table together to eat, and give them 100 percent of your attention for about 15 minutes. After that, they’d be more ready to have some time for themselves and you could say that it’s time for mommy to go back to work now and escape back to your desk.

MOLLY: I did start doing that and, in fact, noticed immediately that it helped stop the struggles. For a while they stopped complaining that I was always working and were able to settle in more comfortably for the rest of the afternoon without my physical presence.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Look at that: by devoting just 15 minutes of time to greeting your children and giving them your full attention, you freed up many more uninterrupted work hours.

MOLLY: It’s still hard, though, and our summer schedule has thrown everything off. Maybe I’m not doing this well enough these days because I still hear my kids complaining that I’m “always working.”

But it’s a brutal tightrope: it feels like I can’t give as much as my job demands and needs, yet I also can’t dedicate enough time and attention to my children as they want and demand.

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think it’s very very hard to complete tasks for a job while taking care of children at the same time, forget doing them both well.

When you work from home and have responsibilities beyond just taking care of a house and a family, it’s a different experience than going off to an office where your time is clearly delineated for work only. It’s much harder to dedicate yourself fully to and complete work tasks when you’re also accessible and responsible for young children, and often both must be attended to at the same time. Indeed I think that work-at-home parents often feel like they’re working all the time as a result.

MOLLY: I know from my experience that my 3- and 7-year olds can not grasp the concept that they might need to be quiet for a work call. In fact, they seem to be especially needy as soon as I get on a professional call if they are around.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right, they have their antennae up and they know.

MOLLY: Still, I can see so many benefits to being able to work from home including all the time I save from commuting (a serious time commitment in a big city like Los Angeles, where I live) and the time and expense of dressing for a professional workplace. Not to mention that I don’t have to deal with office politics anymore – I always hated that part of corporate life.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Agreed, and in exchange you have to be very disciplined about organizing your time. If your children are in school then you can try to dedicate yourself to working during school hours rather than trying to conduct business calls during after-school hours when they are home.

I thought you were smart to hire the sitter for some extra hours last year when your youngest was only in school for half of a day.

MOLLY: It still feels like I never have enough time to get everything done.

DR. RUTHERFORD: When you don’t have clearly defined working hours, that feeling is almost impossible to avoid because there will always be something else that could be worked on at any given time.

The key to helping children accept and learn that their parent might have responsibilities or interests outside of their family is to make sure to spend some undivided time re-connecting after having separate experiences. This is true whether the parent works outside the home, from the home, or not at all; indeed, it’s a technique to use anytime the children have experiences without the parent –including going to pre-school or school.

I remember when your sister was two years old and I was teaching at the medical school. When I would come home and rush around trying to get dinner prepared, your sister would be hanging all over me and whining. I finally realized that if I stopped and spent 15 minutes of undivided attention with her when I got home, she would be able to calm down and play with her toys or color while I took care of things in the kitchen and put food on the table.

It comes back to the primal issues for children of feeling secure in your parents’ constancy in order to feel safe to go back out and experience life on her own again the next day. It just takes a few minutes of complete attention to satisfy this basic need in a child, and satisfying it will allow the child stop feeling so needy. Which will then allow the parent the space to do what she needs to get done.

This is a good reminder that sometimes simply pausing life to listen and give focused, undivided attention can be a remarkably effective technique for raising happier children.

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Stop the Complaining! How to Change Behavior With Rewards Not Consequences


It seems my 7-year old daughter complains a lot just for the sake of complaining. How can we stop it?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Let’s talk about some positive behavior modification strategies that this parent can put to use immediately to change this behavior.

The first step is to help the child become aware of what she’s doing. She’s so used to complaining that she probably doesn’t even realize that she’s doing it anymore.

From now on, whenever she complains, stop, look her in the face, and in a quiet way ask, “Do you hear yourself?”

She’ll probably respond, “What?”

Remind her gently, “You’re complaining again. Do you hear yourself?” The point of this exercise is to engage her and help her to observe her own behavior. One has to recognize one’s behavior before change is possible.

That’s the first step: to help her see and recognize her own behavior. The second strategy is to start behavior modification incentives. Remember that positive incentives work better than negative consequences, so we want to set this up to reward a positive change in behavior rather than to punish the undesired behavior.

Consider setting up a system like a sticker chart that tracks behavior on a daily basis. Every day that she doesn’t complain she gets a special sticker to put on her chart and maybe an extra story at bedtime or other treat. When she accumulates  one week of stickers (seven stickers), she should receive an additional larger reward.

Be sure to lay out the ground rules with her in advance, keeping in mind that complaining is a habit for her and it takes constant reminders and much practice to break a habit, even for adults. Experts say that it takes a minimum of 90 days to break a habit, so don’t expect too much from a seven-year old at first.

Perhaps the rules at the beginning state that she gets two warnings when she is complaining and then if she needs a third she loses her treat for the day. Then as her behavior improves and she gets two to four weeks worth of stickers, the rules evolve to where she receives only one warning before she loses the sticker for the day.

Whatever the parents decide to do, it’s important that the rules are known to her beforehand and not announced ad hoc.

When she complains, comment without a further response. Just say, “ Oops, did you notice that you complained again? This is your first warning.” That’s it, nothing more.

Be sure to make the first several weeks achievable for her or she might give up on the idea altogether. Once she receives her first reward and sees that it’s achievable she will have the incentive to continue working toward the goal of not complaining.

Successful behavior modification relies on two elements: engaging that part of ourselves referred to in psychology as the observing ego, and practicing the desired behavior to internalize the reward.

The observing ego is that part of each of us that steps outside of ourselves and sees what we are doing. This is a very important psychological ability for everyone who is socialized and living in a community with others.

The reward part helps us learn that it is better to be a nice person, and that nice people are rewarded for nice behavior.

MOLLY:This question came from a parent in Denver, Colorado. When you see adults in your practice, can you tell who was a complainer as a child? Are there any long- term consequences for this behavior?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, there are. Most adult habitual complainers were the same way as children. The more someone is allowed to complain about anything and everything as a child, the longer this behavior will go on until it becomes firmly entrenched in the person’s personality. As she grows, she will continue to complain to friends and teachers, and later to a spouse and in work relationships.

Of course, some complaints are legitimate and should not be overlooked, but that’s not what we’ve been talking about here. No one likes to be around someone who constantly complains rather than tries to figure things out in a positive manner. This is why it is so important to address this particular behavior as early as possible.

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