– By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D.
My ex-husband and I have very different parenting styles for our children; mine is to be reasonable and responsible and to put my children’s health and best interests first, and his is to be the party dad, and the “yes” all the time dad. Our oldest son, who turned 21 this summer, announced that he will be bringing his girlfriend home with him from college for the first week of winter break. My ex-husband is fine with this, and he’s also fine with them staying in his room and sharing the same bed. This will not be happening at my house. My ex is also fine with our son drinking in his presence … he took my son bar hopping on his 21st birthday this summer. I’m worried that my younger children who are 15 and 19 will be negatively influenced by seeing their older brother sleeping with his girlfriend and getting drunk in their dad’s home. I’m also worried that he isn’t being healthy and that his behavior is immoral. My son texted me that he plans to stay at his dads for the entire winter break because “it’s just easier that way” and because I’m “being too difficult again.” – Frustrated in Loudoun
Divorce is hard on children, and hard on parents – especially when parenting styles differ greatly. While I appreciate and respect your position, I think you need to manage your expectations better. I get your concerns for your children in relation to their father, but your general negative position of your ex-husband, will likely only continue to backfire on you with your older child, and maybe your younger ones too.
Your son is 21 years old, and if he chooses to drink alcohol, he can. If he chooses to sleep with his girlfriend, he can. If he’s bold enough to request that he drink and share a bed with his girlfriend while home on winter break, I think it’s safe to assume that he’s doing these sorts of things already at college.
Just because your son wants to do what he feels he has a right to, and just because his father will say “yes,” doesn’t mean that you should roll over and take it.
I recommend that you call your son to discuss things before he comes home. Do not focus on your parenting differences with his father because your son will probably just hear that you’re disapproving of his father and even him. I would let your son know you love him and you are concerned he might not be making the best decisions. With a kind and nonjudgmental tone, I recommend that you explain your views on drinking and sex for him as a young man, and open up a dialogue with a respectful open ear. Let your son know your concerns regarding health, safety, and morality when it comes to drinking and sex, as well as your concerns regarding his behaviors with his younger siblings.
His girlfriend will be departing after the first week, so why don’t you invite him to stay with you after that? Let him know that you can’t control his drinking at his father’s house or outside of your house, but you simply want him to respect your request for him to not drink in your house or around his younger siblings.
Remember, you will probably have less success with all of this if you take the position that what you say is right. You will likely have more success if you let him know that you have a problem with the behaviors in question and you’d appreciate his cooperation in working with you to find a compromise.
Last year our family went to my father and mother in-laws for a large Christmas gathering. Our children and their cousins opened up their gifts under the tree together for the first time. My brother in-law and his wife are wealthy and excessive people and they went way overboard with gifts for their two boys. We were more modest with our gift giving for our children, and they were very upset about getting a lot less than their cousins since it was rubbed right in their faces. It turns out that we will be visiting my in-laws and opening gifts there again this year. I’ve asked my husband to speak to his brother about toning it down this year, but he thinks anything he says will just lead to a fight. I grew up getting one nice gift and a stocking full of smaller things, and I want to instill those same values in my children. So, do I do what I think is right and upset my children again this year, or do I over give and turn my children into entitled spoiled brats.
– Upset in Loudoun
If the new tradition for your family is for your children to open up their gifts under the tree each year with their cousins, I think you need to adjust your approach to gift giving – or run the risk of more upset and tears for your children. While I don’t disagree with your opinion that children shouldn’t be overindulged, I’m not sure Christmas with your extended family is the best time to teach that lesson. I’m also reminded of the old adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
I don’t know your children’s ages, but buying more gifts doesn’t necessary need to break the bank. You could be creative with what you purchase, and you could even make or craft some unique items. Maybe your husband could talk to his brother about doing a group gift for all of the children. For example, going to a bouncy house, a water park or a movie could be a fun gift.
Also do you really need to be with your extended family when opening gifts every Christmas Day? Perhaps you could open gifts at your home and then drive over for the larger family visit after.
The topic of your brother in-law’s wealth and gifting seems to be upsetting to you. Just because he and his wife choose to give their children more, doesn’t mean that they are bad parents or that their children are “spoiled brats.” Perhaps his wealth and generosity with his children is negatively affecting his boys, but perhaps his actions are triggering something within you that you might wish to examine.
Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He has been featured on CNN Nightly News, Good Morning America and several other outlets. He can be reached at 703 723-2999 and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn.