How to deal when your ex spoils your kids

Parenting

Every two weeks, Naomi Cooper* sends her six-year-old daughter to her ex-husband’s house for the weekend, knowing her days will be packed with over-the-top excursions, new toys and late nights. Inevitably, her daughter returns home tired and grumpy, and complains that her mom doesn’t give her the same treats as Dad. “I’m always the bad guy,” Cooper says, sighing.

It’s been like this for the two years she’s been co-parenting with her ex, but the dynamic was particularly troubling the Christmas her daughter returned from her dad’s house bragging about all the gifts she’d received and griping that her mother hadn’t given her more.

“I looked her straight in the eye and told her Christmas is about spending time with family and I don’t have to buy her love,” says Cooper, who lives near Cobourg, Ont., and recently had a second child with her new partner. Although she knew it wasn’t the most “politically correct” thing to say, Cooper says she’s grown tired of her ex’s particular brand of indulgence and neglect.

“He’s always got to show off, always be the best,” she says.

There’s a name for this pattern

Cooper sees her ex-husband as a “Disneyland dad”—that is, all too willing to do fun stuff with their daughter, but unwilling to do the hard parenting, like enforcing a consistent bedtime or insisting vegetables are eaten. All of that heavy lifting falls to her.

The expression “Disneyland dad” isn’t a new one. It shows up in parenting research dating back to the early 1980s, although it’s not clear who coined the term. Initially, it was a cheeky reference to divorced fathers who spoiled their kids with big gifts and vacations, leaving the real burden of parenting to divorced moms. But since parental indulgence isn’t gender-specific, the terms “Disneyland mom” and “Disneyland parent” have sprung up in subsequent years.

Clinical social worker and therapist Jenna Hill, who runs an individual and family counselling practice based in St. Thomas, Ont., has encountered plenty of Disneyland parents through her work with high-conflict co-parents, but she first came across the dynamic in her own life. After splitting with her ex-husband when their daughter was small, Hill continued to be the “grunt-work parent,” as she puts it, while he became a Disneyland dad who dodged the hard parenting in favour of fun parenting (including an actual trip to Disneyland one year).

Twice a month, Hill’s daughter would spend the weekend with her father and return home exhausted and full of attitude. Good times were had, but not a lot of real parenting, she says. “He wouldn’t brush her hair and would feed her too much soda and chips—and all of the things that went against my mommy radar.” At the same time, she knew her ex-husband to be a decent human being and loving father who only got to see his daughter twice a month, so she let it go—not just the laissez-faire parenting, but the extravagant gifts and trips she couldn’t afford as a single mom. Hill, who is more introverted, reminded herself that she didn’t want to do most of that stuff anyway. “I don’t make every day an adventure,” she laughs. “Here’s the adventure: It’s lunch!”

Does Disneyland parenting hurt kids?

After each monthly visit, Hill’s daughter needed a couple of days to get back into her usual routine and shake off the sass—with some help from her mom. Hill would remind her kiddo of the rules and boundaries of their household, and began to anticipate this behaviour and a few days’ grace period as her daughter readjusted.

Without a doubt, Disneyland parenting is tough on the other parent, says Hill, but it isn’t necessarily harmful to the children—at least, not if both parents are on decent terms and don’t openly criticize the other’s choices.

“A lot of it relies on the ‘non-fun’ parent to be able to say, ‘That’s so nice that Mommy got that for you, but we have some rules around that in this house,’” says Hill. In her experience, it’s possible to celebrate a child’s positive experience with the other parent—even if you don’t agree with it—and maintain the rules of your home. Children can accept different rules at different houses provided they’re clear and consistent.

Of course, it’s hard when the Disneyland parent isn’t just spoiling the child, but trying to outdo their ex. Hill has seen this dynamic at work in families, too, and, while it can be malicious, the competitive parent is often unaware of it. They may be in denial and not ready, or willing, to see what they’re doing, even if it’s pointed out to them gently and diplomatically.

But regardless of a co-parent’s motivations, the grunt-work parent must manage their feelings and resist taking the bait. “You can’t compete with a parent who has more,” says Hill. “And, emotionally, you don’t need to compete with the other parent, because your child will always love both of you.”

In fact, if you’re anxious that your Disneyland co-parent may damage your relationship with your child, don’t worry: Parent-child bonds aren’t built upon a regular influx of new toys or damaged by regular chores. “Throughout my entire career, a child has never said, ‘I like it better at my dad’s house because he lets me have the tablet whenever I want,’” says Hill. And, in her own life, Hill has maintained her close bond with her now-adult daughter, while supporting the relationship with her father.

Ultimately, it isn’t toys and treats that build connection between parents and children. Hill points out that children form secure attachments when their parents consistently meet their physical and emotional needs, and they spend time together—something that doesn’t need to happen at a theme park. Simple activities and predictable, comforting rituals like reading together at bedtime each night can create the bonds children need to feel safe and loved.

While Disneyland parenting may not harm a child’s relationship with their parents, some experts worry that it could lead to other, more insidious, harm. Karen Skinulis, a psychotherapist specializing in parenting and family issues in Richmond Hill, Ont., worries about the longterm impact of Disneyland parenting on a child’s development.

“In a Disneyland world, it’s all fun and there’s no responsibility, and not a lot expected of children,” she says. If we see parenting as a matter of preparing children for life, Disneyland parenting may be a cruel set-up. A parent who constantly creates non-stop fun for the kids runs the risk of their children equating love with getting stuff, of course, but also coming to expect nonstop fun, and perhaps even believing that others are obliged to make them happy. And, when they inevitably don’t get what they want, a heavily indulged child may feel a disproportionate amount of disappointment and anger. This does nothing to prepare kids for adult life, which is filled with disappointments, small and large, that we must navigate with grace. “We want to help children experience boundaries and limits while they’re growing up, so they’re very comfortable with it and have a lot of practice,” says Skinulis.

Another possible side effect is even more subtle or indirect. Megan Vandersluys, a registered clinical counsellor in Nanaimo, BC, notes that Disneyland parenting often stems from a parent’s guilt around the divorce. Indulging a child may function as a kind of misguided apology, whether this is the intent or not.

“If a child is stuck in the grief and loss [of divorce] and one parent is constantly trying to make up for it, this reinforces the idea that ‘this must be a terrible thing that happened to me, poor me,’” explains Vandersluys. Instead, a parent should build a child’s resilience by teaching them that we all live through difficult things and have the ability to move on with our lives. “Constantly parenting out of guilt and trying to make up for the divorce years and years later” really sends the wrong message, she says.

Relating to your co-parent

Melanie Taylor* has not one, but two Disneyland parents in her life: her ex-husband (the father of her 11-year-old daughter) and, after she remarried, her new husband’s ex-wife (the mother of her two step-kids). In both co-parenting situations, she and her new partner are the heavylifting grunt-work parents compared to their more indulgent, permissive exes.

She says none of the three kids complain that they don’t get the treats they get from their other parents, like new toys and clothes or regular trips to McDonald’s—all three seem content to spend time together as a family. “I think that’s what most kids want,” says the Lethbridge, Alta., mom. “It gets old fast when you just buy them things all of the time.”

At the same time, it’s hard to watch both Disneyland parents spoiling the kids while shirking their responsibilities. In the case of her exhusband, Taylor finds herself not only playing the role of the “un-fun” parent, but also pushing him to deliver on the extravagant promises he makes to their daughter. On her last birthday, he promised her a gift of $500 but didn’t deliver until Taylor nudged him several times; when the money materialized, he’d cut it down to $250. Although she didn’t agree with the extravagant gift, Taylor figured it would be worse for her daughter if he failed to follow through. “I feel like I’m the only one keeping their relationship afloat,” she says with a sigh.

For “un-fun” parents, Disneyland parenting can be downright aggravating, but a little bit of compassion can go a long way, says Carol Futerman, a registered psychotherapist and counsellor with Family Service Toronto. Consider the possibility that your ex-spouse is unknowingly acting out of guilt over the divorce, fear of loss, or some other emotional baggage.

Your co-parent may also simply lack the parenting skills to cope with stress or bond with the kids without relying on special gifts or outings. “Sometimes, people are just not equipped,” she says. These parents struggle to connect through mundane activities like bedtime or cooking dinner, and don’t do the hard work of maintaining boundaries and routines. They could be using treats and novelty to compensate for their inability to connect in more fundamental ways. And sometimes parents are just too stressed or distracted to remember that a few dedicated minutes of simply sitting and colouring pictures with your kid, or playing hide-and-seek around the house, can strengthen a relationship more than a trip to the toy store.

With a little compassion, it may be possible to broach the topic of your ex’s Disneyland parenting. Futerman recommends starting a conversation by validating your ex’s experience, just as you would with your child in an effort to calm them. If you’ve noticed patterns, mention your observations about your child’s behaviour when they return to your home, and be clear on what you’re asking your ex to do. It’s also important to recognize that they don’t have to agree.

“There is a bit of an art to the communication,” Futerman says. “Of course, no one responds well to accusations.” She recommends identifying common ground or a common goal in this difficult conversation, and approaching the possible outcome with curiosity. Statements like “I wonder what we can do to work on that” may help.

But be discerning about what you bring up with your co-parent, says Skinulis. As much as you may disagree with your ex’s parenting methods, you’re going to want to choose your battles. (A couple of late nights and overdoing it on the candy is not going to stunt your child’s growth or cause permanent health issues, for instance). If your co-parenting relationship is tenuous, it may be best to bring up the parenting choices that pose real risks to your child’s emotional or physical health, and leave the smaller stuff alone in the interests of co-parenting harmony.

This can be hard, but part of co-parenting is accepting you can’t control what happens on the other side, even if you have to deal with the consequences. “The only thing you have control over is your own life decisions and how you’re going to parent your child,” Skinulis says.

There may be no happily ever after with a Disneyland parent, but on your side of the castle, you call the shots. “That’s one of the more positive things about being a single parent,” says Skinulis. “You don’t have to compromise.”

*Names have been changed

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