“Disciplining” Your Ex

By Susan Bartell, Psy.D

Can Single Moms Co-Parent With An Ex They Are Not on Speaking Terms With?Q:When it comes to our kids, my ex always wants to be “the good guy”, indulging them, no limits, never wanting to say ‘NO’ to anything. This leaves me in the role of Mommy Dearest in their eyes. I’m the one who tells them to do their homework, eat their vegetables, and of course go to sleep on time. As you can imagine, they love being at daddy’s house and complain that I’m ‘mean’. How do I get him to stick to our family rules, so that the kids have consistent structure in their life? —I’m No Mommy Dearest, in Dallas, TX

It is certainly understandable that you want your children to have consistency in the way they are parented and this can be complicated when parents are divorced. But one thing I find time and again is that when one is the ‘fun’ parent and the other is the ‘serious’ parent, it is almost always because both have chosen their roles—NOT just the fun parent. And the roles are typically mom is the disciplinarian and dad is the fun one.

In some cases, the ‘fun’ parent actually emerges in order to counteract rigid disciplining by the other parent that is caused by feeling it’s the only way to manage being a single parent without losing control. This is particularly true when you are the custodial parent and you have your child(ren) most of the time. On the other hand, a non-custodial parent believes that having limited time with a child means it should be fun. Many non-custodial parents don’t realize that making rules and setting limits are the most important parts of parenting, no matter how much time you have with them.

All this can lead to inconsistencies in parenting. Never the less, it is not reasonable for you to demand that your children’s other parent stick to YOUR rules. In fact, this almost guarantees failure! The reality is children of divorce need to learn to adapt to different sets of rules in their two homes. Of course this doesn’t mean you should always be the bad guy. To begin with you need to take a look at your parenting style. Perhaps you are being too strict. Maybe you’ve earned your “Mommy Dearest” title for a reason having nothing to do with your ex. Rules and routines are critical for kids. But so is flexibility and fun. It’s okay for you to sometimes be the fun parent—in fact I highly recommend it!

Next, forget the idea of trying to get him to stick to your family rules. Instead, encourage him to make some of his own. For example, if he studies for a test with your child, make sure your child calls him to tell him about the results of the test—hopefully a good grade (or you make the call!) If he cooks them a healthy meal, send him an email saying that they told you how delicious it was. Actively look for moments like this, no matter how small, and reinforce them. This will encourage good parenting. And as difficult as it may be, resist the urge to put him down for overindulging them. The more you support him as a good father and ignore the parts you dislike, the less he’ll feel the need to fight against you. Always keep in mind that you’re doing this for your children. Eventually, perhaps the two of you will be parenting in balance, which is exactly what your children need.

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You can reach Dr. Susan at her website: www.DrSusanBartell.com.