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One of the most common problems in post-divorce parenting is that one parent, (typically the non-resident parent), will start to spoil the children. Either they lavish them with gifts and special treats, or worse yet, allow unrestricted freedom to do whatever they want. When this pattern sets in, it doesn’t place either parent in a good position.

Why people bribe or spoil their children after divorce

When a parent begins spoiling their children after a divorce, it’s usually not out of spite or malicious intent. It’s because the parent feels insecure, and naturally so. Take the case of the non-custodial parent. Dad (or mom) feels as though their status in the family has been greatly diminished. He only gets to see the kids two days out of the week or perhaps every other weekend. He feels like he’s missing out on a large part of their life. And so to make up for it, he tends to overcompensate and become the parent who aims to please. He wants to be the “cool” parent to make up for his time apart. He also doesn’t want to spend what limited time he has with the kids enforcing rules and limitations which would risk the kids getting upset with him. Se he turns into grandma: Everything goes and the kids will be pampered until their little hearts are content. Kids sense this, and like a shark drawn to blood in the water, will start to take advantage of it.

Parents who divorce may also feel guilty about what they are putting their kids through, and so this can lead to bribing or spoiling the children. This is a tendency that can just as easily infect either parent. Kids are naturally upset about the divorce, and may act in ways that make life difficult for their parents. Put the two together, and you often get a situation where parents inadvertently attempt to “pay off” their children in the hopes of buying compliance or good behavior, much in the same way a company may settle with an accident victim just to make them go away.

For example, mom picks up 10-year-old daughter Sally after school. Upon returning home, she encounters a note from Sally’s teacher saying she hasn’t been completing her homework and is getting an unsatisfactory grade in class. She finds Sally, who is playing video games, and asks her about it. A fight ensues. Sally wants to play games, not do homework. During the argument, Sally throws out this barb: “Well maybe if you and dad were still together, I could think straight and get good grades!” Mom, who is tired from the day’s work, stressed out about the divorce and trying to adjust to life as a single parent, lacks the mental energy to deal with this right now. She just wants her daughter to stop giving her a hard time. So she resorts to a bribe: “I don’t want to fight about it. Just get your homework done, and if you can get your grade up in this class, I’ll get you that new game you wanted.” Sally complies. Problem solved…for now. But it wasn’t solved effectively. Mom just rewarded Sally for being defiant and promised a gift for something Sally needed to do regardless. It allowed herself to take a temporary reprieve from the task of parenting, which would have required a protracted conversation and perhaps some unpleasant emotions. But the problem is that once you start such a pattern, it’s very difficult to step back out of it.

Making matters worse, kids have a knack for instinctually playing one parent against the other to get what they want. You may tell them that it’s not a competition for their love all you want, but you better believe that kids will insinuate as much whenever it works to their advantage. They’ll tell you all about what the other parent let them do or how good they have it at the other house. And when you refuse them something, whether it’s a privilege or new possession, they may put on a show worthy of an Oscar, claiming that you’re mean and don’t love them as much.

Parents need to be aware of this trap, and take steps so that they don’t let this pattern develop to begin with. This problem is like a bad cavity: it only gets worse unless you correct it right away. Parents need to guard against this tendency so that it never has a chance to take hold.

It’s better to sacrifice one or two bad visits in the beginning rather than get locked into an unhealthy pattern that will be much harder to correct later. If you’re reading this information because it’s already a problem, the following guidelines will help you rectify the situation.

When you’re the “mean” parent: What to do if your ex is spoiling the kids

A) Recognize that in most cases, your former spouse is not doing this to foil you or to make you look bad in the eyes of your children. Just the opposite: they’re insecure about the time they spend with the kids or in their role as parents, and so it’s almost a compulsive drive to ensure this time is memorable, which often means treating the kids like royalty and showering them with gifts or caving to their every desire.

B) Talk to the other parent calmly and rationally according to the guidelines for handling problems set out in this chapter. Be sure to express empathy for their situation. Let them know you understand the temptation, but that it’s starting to create problems. Be prepared to talk about some of the challenges it’s creating for you.

C) Whenever children try to equate privileges or possessions with love, call out their bluff: “I am not willing to give in and buy you this, because you have a lot already, and I believe it’s important that you learn self-control. I do this precisely because I love you and want to see you grow into a good person. But I’d be perfectly willing to show you all the ways I love you through means that don’t require money or benign neglect. Just tell me what I can do to show you I love you…”

If you’re the parent spoiling the children

A) Try to see things from your ex’s perspective. You may not be intentionally trying to encroach upon him or her as a parent, but when one parent consistently gives the kids everything they wish for while the other is tasked with the more mundane, day to day responsibilities of parenting, it can create a good cop, bad cop scenario. THIS ISN’T FAIR. Both parents need to help balance fun with moderation, and both parents need to have a role in discipline.

B) Recognize that in the long-run, material gifts have little overall value in the quality of the relationship you have with your kids. It may purchase short-term good will, but not long-term rewards. So try to engage in more fun things that do not require money and which instead build social capital, such as trips to the beach or walks in the mountains. Heck, when it comes to kids in elementary school and younger, simply doing something unorthodox and fun – like gathering props and building a gigantic fort with them inside your house – can be just as enriching and memorable as any material possessions.

C) Remember that your kids need you to be a parent, not a buddy. Parents can be buddies and best friends as well, SO LONG AS THEY MAINTAIN AUTHORITY & DISCIPLINE. If you give in too easily or are unable to say no, you’re undermining your own authority as a parent.

D) If you feel guilty over the divorce, allow this to be expressed through extra love or condolences, and most importantly, quality time spent with the kids. Don’t try to do it through material possessions or privileges. Most children of divorce see right through this gimmick anyway, which only reinforces their negative beliefs and gives them the sense that their parents are trying to “buy them off.” They may very well go along with the bribing, but it’s more likely to erode their image of you as a parent, not strengthen it.

Things you can do to solve the problem together

A) Get together with your ex to try and work out an agreement about what is a healthy amount of fun for the kids. Is it seeing a movie once a month, or twice a month? Are three trips a month for ice cream too much, or is six the point that stretches the limit? Take into consideration whatever indulgences you engaged in as a family before the divorce. You want to create a balance that is based on your own particular lifestyle, and each family has different activities that they indulge in more than others. But you want to strike a balance to where you’re still able to give the kids fun and enjoyable experiences without letting them have every little thing their heart desires.

Once you have this list on what’s appropriate and how much is too much, go over it together and divide items so that each parent has an equitable allotment of fun activities. Keep in mind that if each of you merely kept to a similar rate of indulgences as occurred before the divorce, this would instantly double the amount of indulgences children receive, since it’s now multiplied by two households. If dad plans a movie one week, he should wait till the next month before taking the kids again. If mom does an impulse buy for the child, she should wait a decided amount of time before doing so again. Be flexible in the enforcement of such guidelines; allow each parent to swap something out if a special occasion arises, but try to adhere to a set amount of equally divided indulgences.

To get the kids on board, talk to them about this plan and go over the different quotas. They’ll have an easier time limiting themselves when you give them a sense of choice that makes them feel like they have some control over the situation. And if the spoiling has gotten really bad by one or both parents, you might want to break this in gradually, cutting back a little a each month until you get to a healthy balance.

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