Divorced dad with overindulgent ex

Dear Mr. Dad: I am a divorced father of a 9-year-old boy, sharing custody with my ex-wife. The problem is that she’s overindulgent, and after a week in her house, our son comes home feeling and acting helpless. How do I get my ex to understand that our son needs to learn to be independent—and that she needs to encourage independence when he’s with her

A: You’ve put your finger on two of the biggest problems single parents face these days. First, dealing with inconsistencies between houses. And second, one parent spoiling the child. In many cases—as you’ve already noticed—the two go hand in hand.

Ideally, you and your ex-wife would have similar parenting goals, which you would discuss on a frequent basis as your son grows. However, as you’ve discovered, that’s not always practical, especially if the two of you aren’t on the best of terms.

The bad news is that you can’t change your ex-wife. You can try to talk with her about the importance of consistent rules, but there’s no guarantee she’ll cooperate. And you could tell her that children who don’t learn to be independent may:

· Become very frustrated at the simplest of tasks or give up when things don’t go their way.

· Have trouble accepting responsibility for their actions, instead putting the blame on others and never taking the initiative to change their situation.

· Lack confidence in their own abilities.

· Blindly follow others—often straight into trouble (drug or alcohol abuse, truancy, crime, teen pregnancy, and so on)

· End up as overly dependent adults, without the skills they need to be successful in their work and social lives

The good news is that you can change your perspective on your ex’s intentions. Moving from, “Arrgh, now I have to undo everything she did and start from scratch, again!” to something like, “Hey, at least my son is learning how to deal with conflicting points of view,” will help you feel less frustrated when your son comes back from mom’s acting helpless.

This shift in thinking is important, because when you’re constantly fighting against something (your ex wife’s inability/refusal to foster independence), your effectiveness as a parent will be undermined. And no matter how hard you try not to, you’ll convey the message to your son that you disapprove of his mom’s behavior. That puts your son in the middle, and that’s the last place a child should be.

Here are some things you can do to make the transition less frustrating for both you and your son. Remember to be direct with your son about your feelings and observations, and convey these things to him in a supportive, empathetic, and compassionate, yet firm manner.

  • Acknowledge the differences between the homes, and that this may be confusing to your son.
  • Review the rules and expectations in your home.
  • Engage your son’s help in making a list of things you both believe he is capable of doing.
  • Stick to it!
  • Post your list in a prominent place in the house.
  • Remember to appreciate his contributions.
  • When your son gets home after his week at his mom’s, go over the list again as a reminder.

As you and your son become familiar with the list and the new routine, you will both feel less frustrated, and your son will feel better about himself knowing what to expect when he’s back with you.

Continuing to take steps to teach your son to be more independent, teaching him life skills, and helping him understand that he has choices will reinforce his sense of competence. Teaching your son that he can make choices (and if he makes the wrong one, how to accept responsibility and learn from his mistakes), will help him develop the skills he needs to be successful as an adult.