Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a single mom with a 10-year-old son who’s with me half the time. Before the divorce, he was a sweet kid and a pleasure to be around. But lately he’s become a terror, throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants—and I think it’s because his father is spoiling him. How do I deal with him? What can I say to his dad to get this behavior to stop?
A: As you well know, divorce is tough on everyone involved: you, your ex, and your son. And among the many problems divorce creates, one of the most common is children being spoiled by mom or dad. The one doing the spoiling is usually the non-custodial parent, who’s making a well-intentioned attempt to buy the kids’ affection or to do something to make up for how hard the divorce has been on them. But the same thing can happen in cases like yours, where both parents have the kids the same amount of time.
When your son says something like, “But Dad lets me do that!” it’s awfully tempting to respond with a snide comment about your ex. However, as much as you may want to vent your anger, it’s important that you restrain yourself from criticizing your ex in front of your son. The best you can do right now is remind him that in Dad’s house, Dad sets the rules. In your house, you do. End of discussion.
Talk with Dad
Set up a time to talk with your ex about what’s going on. Sooner rather than later. Again, you may be angry and tempted to lash out or start slinging accusations and criticisms. Don’t. Any discussion that starts that way is doomed. Make sure you’re calm when you make the call or meet in person, and make sure the conversation itself stays as low-key and low-volume as possible. Focus on your son’s behavior. Ask whether your ex is seeing the same things at his house. If so, you’re instant allies. If not, ask for his support in helping your son understand the different-houses-different-rules thing.
Maybe it’s Not Dad After All
Just because your son says his dad lets him get away with something or that he buys him cool stuff doesn’t mean that’s what’s actually happening. Children are generally pretty good at playing mom and dad off each other. But children in divorced families are masters. You also need to consider that even though he’s only 10, your son is quickly lurching towards the teen years and his ornery behavior may be a preview of coming attractions. It’s also possible that your son is angry and trying to punish you for what he sees as you ruining his life. Hey, no one said this was going to be easy.
Don’t Give Up—or In
Regardless of whether your son is lying through his braces or telling the truth about what goes on at Dad’s house, don’t give in. Instead of trying to sooth him with money, offer something a lot more valuable: time. Take him to the park, to a movie, to a video arcade, or read bedtime stories to each other—things that truly matter. At the end of the day, the parent who tries to buy a child’s love by spending money always loses, while the one who spends quality time wins. But it’s not about winning and losing, anyway. It’s about raising your son to be a responsible, healthy, emotionally stable adult. Right?