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 20 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!

    • I have Experienced the complete opposite. I am the part time Dad, however the time difference isn’t very lopsided as I have my 3 kids daughter now 17 and twin boys now 15 about 40% of the time. Yes I pay child support and I am more the disciplinarian. Their Mother has them most of the time and since thearly split in 2012 has moved heaven and Earth to fuss over the daughter and has not put forth the same amount of resources for the boys. That has played out with my Daughter clearly siding with her Mother even though it was learned much afterwards that their was infidelity on her mother’s part and one of the boys being indifferent all together and the other boy has been able to adjust quite well as far as being neutral to each parent. The child being fussed over by her mother is basically been bought and paid for. It’s frustrating!

  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.

  4. I know this post has been up for a while but I don’t know where to go or what to do. I was reading Terri’s post and I feel I’m in a very similar situation. The difference is my daughter is only 9 and she prefers her dad. Just like most single moms I try my hardest to make sure she has everything she needs. She is with me from Sunday night to Thursday night. A few months ago her father didn’t come pick her up for over 3 months. Now that he’s “back” she is treating me … well… not nice to say the least. I don’t get many days off and when I do I want to of course spend time with her. But these days end up being either Friday or saturday. I ask her to stay so we could hang out and she would rather go to her dads. It breaks my heart. Not only that but he constantly brings her home too late or sometimes won’t drop her back off until the next day. She lies to me constantly and just today she lied to her dad and told him that I yell at her. I never raise my voice. I don’t know what to do. I want to have the fun days with her on my days off but she won’t stay. And during school days I can’t keep her home to take her to the movies or to the zoo. So what am I to do. She has told me that at dads house there is no bedtime and they go out to eat for every meal. He isn’t cooperative with me at all in this or anything else. I hope someone has some advice for me.

  5. My son has recently refused to come back home. He’s 16 and I’m the only one who disciplines him. He calls this a “negative atmosphere” . His dad is a heavy drinker and quite frankly doesn’t care what he does for the most part. My son failed a drug test I gave him, so I took his phone and computer and now he’s not coming home….I just don’t know what to do! I feel like such a failure! This is my third son and every time they get old enough and start misbehaving, my ex ignores it and they run to him….how should I handle this? They all act like I’m the bad guy, but if they are to grow up and be members of society, I feel like it’s my job to teach them! But they literally hate me for it….

    • Dear Sheila,
      I think your program of taking things away as a discipline is not working. You might want to try a very different approach. Focus on making an alliance with your son so that you are working together. Talking with about his needs, want he wants, what you would like to see, will go further in making an alliance. Make some compromises. Telling a 16 year old what to do rarely works. Talking with him will be very helpful. Otherwise he is going to avoid you and, in the end, have more personal problems.

  6. I feel your pain! My son has a (largely) Disneyland Dad too. Thankfully, he has every other weekend, so I have time to do fun things with him as well. Is that the structure of your parenting time as ordered by the court? If so, you need to file for a Modification. It is not in your child’s best interest to have no weekend time with you. If it is not court ordered, your child is 9, you don’t have to ask her to stay with you. You are the parent. You can build up the excitement around something fun for the weekend by leaving her little clues….plastic animals under her pillow, in her sandles…….then on Thursday see if she can guess. Yep, we are going to the zoo tomorrow!

    I understand the lack of funds, I struggle with that too. Be creative. Pack a picnic lunch one day and go to a park or pool. Little things mean so much and can cost nothing. I had my son make a list of things he wanted to do this summer. We are crossing them off one by one. Stay your course, because your child needs stability. You can still be that person, but try to make it more lighthearted and fun sometimes too. Everyone tells me that someday my son will appreciate all I am teaching him and doing for him. There have been times when he has said he wanted to go to Dad’s. I acted disappointed and said something like, “Oh, ok. I guess I can take a friend to go see the new Cars movie instead.” I think my son needs to know that I am going to have a fun day no matter what. I also try to connect with him when we are doing something he enjoys, like playing a game or playing with cars. He shares a lot with me. He once told me his dad let him play a video game all day. Then he felt bad because he wasn’t supposed to tell me. I let him know that we can talk about anything. The truth is something we can always share. I let him know that I love him no matter what.

    As you know, you can’t control what goes on over there, so don’t trouble yourself with it. If your parenting plan does not include weekend time for you and you really truly can’t do many fun things with the time you have, filing for a Modification is your first step. That is something you can control. Blessings!

  7. Wow, I raised my daughters alone for 15 years without their father, years later he surfaces and they worship the ground he walks on and will travel hundreds of miles to see him and I live an hour or two a way and they don’t visit but once a year. He is the fun father bowling, dinners expensive gifts and cards. He’s the fun father and has to compensate for not being there.I guess they take me for granted sinse I’ve always been there. It was very hard for me raising two girls alone. He comes along and does nothing and he’s on a pedestal
    Why is that?

    • As im reading this, I realize That I am in the same boat. Except my son is 2 years old and sees his dad every other weekend. He came home this past weekend with a quivering lip and tears in his eyes saying “I want my daddy”. That hurt me so bad, hes always been a mommas boy so I just sat there holding him with tears flowing down my face. Its even worst that he has a new gf that my kids absolutely adore. To top that off his dad sends me a video (GF in teh background) of him asking my son if he wanted to go see momma and my son was saying no! So that night was just filled with emotion. He still says he wants to go to his dads house every other day, but this time without the tears. I start to wonder if I am doing my job right as a mother. Is it normal for a 2 year old boy to cry for his dad like that? My other son just tells me he loves both of us the same mommy and daddy. But my 2 year old just is not having it lately.

  8. As im reading this, I realize That I am in the same boat. Except my son is 2 years old and sees his dad every other weekend. He came home this past weekend with a quivering lip and tears in his eyes saying “I want my daddy”. That hurt me so bad, hes always been a mommas boy so I just sat there holding him with tears flowing down my face. Its even worst that he has a new gf that my kids absolutely adore. To top that off his dad sends me a video (GF in teh background) of him asking my son if he wanted to go see momma and my son was saying no! So that night was just filled with emotion. He still says he wants to go to his dads house every other day, but this time without the tears. I start to wonder if I am doing my job right as a mother. Is it normal for a 2 year old boy to cry for his dad like that? My other son just tells me he loves both of us the same mommy and daddy. But my 2 year old just is not having it lately.

  9. I’ve came across this page while desperately searching for advice or anybody in a similar situation, not sure if anyone will see this or pick this up. I have two sons to a previous partner, aged 8 and 6. I now have a new partner and we have a 10month old baby. My ex has made me suffer in any way he can since ending the relationship, financially, using the courts, refusing to cooperate with me, no matter what the circumstances, and manipulating the kids. He is very intelligent and makes sure any abuse or manipulative behaviour can be covered up. My boys see him one weekend a fortnight, but they would prefer to see him more than that. Despite me fighting at court that contact should be weekly, he refused. I am left doing all school stuff, football (4 training sessions and 2-3 matches per week), homework and the usual boring stuff, while trying to look after a baby. My 8 year old wants to see his dad every weekend and cry’s on the phone to him about this but dad refuses, saying to me he needs to ‘spend time with his wife’ but saying to the boys when he’s got them that it is me who stops them doing this! Money is always an issue although I do try my best to do fun things, but over the last couple of years my ex has become a millionaire, living a very different lifestyle to we do. He was always the fun one but I now have the additional issue that there’s a complete class difference and my kids inevitably have more fun and don’t want to come home. Anything I try to do with them, trips to theme parks, caravan parks, days out, they noticeably never seem to remember any of it, yet they remember and constantly talk about all the fun they’ve had with dad and how amazing it was. This is only going to get worse as he is going to get richer and richer as he company grows and the difference between the households is only going to get greater and greater, but he won’t contribute any more money for maintenance. The situation leaves me constantly depressed. I can’t bare the thought that my kids would rather live somewhere else, or that they don’t like their home with me because I’m not rich and don’t live in a posh area with 5 brand new cars, eating out at fancy restaurants, staying at 5* hotels. It’s eating away at me, while he thrives off every second I am struggling to keep his children and he won’t help out anymore with their day to day costs.

  10. I came up to bed 3 hrs ago and I’m still wide awake and cannot stop crying. My beautiful little boy who I have brought up nearly all by myself for the last 4 years is not here with me he’s with his daddy.
    His daddy didn’t want to no much in the first few years of his life. He put me through hell abusive behaviour no money for my son only when it suited him.
    When my boy comes home now from his dads he cries as soon as he pulls up outside my house. He screams at me and his behaviour has got destructive. His dad just blames me and says it’s all my fault.
    I go without in every part of my life. I buy my son clothes shoes toys we go to supermarket I only really buy foods he likes due to cost. I get nothing. His father on the other hand dresses like a million dollars. I just find it all so unfair. I just feel like the more u do the less you are wanted.

  11. I am in a similar situation. My ex totally spoils my 12 year old daughter and takes her on amazing holidays. He has recently had a baby with his new partner (he left me for her) but they are using the baby to make my daughter feel guilty about coming home to me and he’s bad mouthing me as she repeats it. I try my hardest to be the best mum and have a happy home but inside feel my heart is breaking

  12. I’m in a situation like most here on this forum. My ex has been spoiling our kids since before the divorce, and in the year and a half since spends hundreds of dollars on them every Sat then sends them home for me to do all the parenting. He claims not to live anywhere, and tells the kids my house (according to the MSA) is his house or their house. He has tried to wiggle his way back into the house and then cry victim that “mommy won’t let him watch them.” Meanwhile, he makes plenty of money, of course. This came to a head when our 10 year old son thought he could ignore me and squared off with me yelling at me to “get out of his house.” In that moment I clearly saw the possibility of having to call the cops on my own child had this been 5 years down the line. I took an unorthodox path and gave my ex back the house, met him in front of a notary public to sign a statement that I am not abandoning my children and that they all wish to live together at this time, handed him a support check appropriate to my level of income (lower than his because I had to accommodate our kids full time) and set about securing better paying work that takes me out of the area (because I was forced to stay in the rural, economically depressed area by him instead of relocating for work after the divorce). There you go, I’m giving my ex, son (10), and daughter (13) what they all claim they want. I talk to them every day and text them and see them for short visits when I can. I have friends who look in on our kids because they live in the neighborhood and work in their schools. This is the biggest staring contest of my life, but he is such a manipulative a$$ that I figured it to be the only way to break the spell of Disney Dad. I hope either my ex rallies and becomes a real parent instead of acting like a rich uncle/peer or if/when this situation crashes and burns, I will have time to get the kids on track for college and a functional adult life. My daughter is on track thus far, my son wants to emulate his father, so I’m trying to break the spell with a heavy dose of this-is-your-dad reality check. My heart aches. Please wish me luck and the best outcome for my kiddos. It has been 4 weeks and already my kids are walking from the bus (he promised them he would pick them up at school every day) and my son is starting to fall behind on homework and is gaining unhealthy weight. I can tell my daughter misses me and is starting to realize she made a mistake (but hasn’t said as much, yet). I will gather myself financially and be ready to pick up the pieces to make them welcome in an area that suits me financially and will be safe for them; if they come back with me I will not expect their dad to magically be willing to coparent after the years he has refused to thus far… And I will take the door off of my son’s room and make him earn it back for making me unwelcome in my own home, because I love him enough to make him act right 🙂

  13. I am terrified of being this “Disneyland dad”.
    My partner left me 3 months ago and my stepson (age 7) told me last night that i am his favourite parent. I tried to explain to him that we both love him equally and that he should not have a favourite. I made him promise never to say anything like that to his mummy because she is the most important person in his life and he has and always will be her favourite person in the world.
    I take him out and have fun with him but i always stick to the rules that we had for him as a couple, he doesn’t get away with murder when i have him and i try to teach him good manners and respect (he has always been good anyway)
    I always positively reinforce that all though me and his mum can’t be together anymore we are still friends and he will always be the most important person to us both. I remind him of all of the things she does for him everyday and take every opportunity to remind him how amazing and loving she is.

    I don’t want to be the “favourite parent”, i just want to be there for him when he needs me. I am the only father he has ever known.

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