Divorce often creates a financial imbalance between parents. Even with child support payments, a custodial parent can find that he or she is barely making ends meet. If one parent remarries and the other doesn’t, there may be a difference in lifestyles between the two homes, which can create a sense of competition between parents.
I recently had a man tell me that he had sole custody of his three children for the past five years because the children’s mother was unstable due to a drug problem. Dad described to me how he was focused on teaching his children good values and responsibility, even though financially, it was difficult to give them what they wanted.
“They never knew about my financial problems because I always made their needs a priority,” he said with tears in his eyes. Then one day, his daughter turned fourteen and decided she wanted to go live with her mother because mom had remarried and was living in a house on the golf course with a swimming pool. They told her they would buy her all the clothing she wanted if she would live in their home.
Needless to say, dad was crushed by his daughter’s seemingly disloyal attitude and was disgusted by his ex-wife’s tactics to create what he felt would be a false relationship with her daughter. In the state where he lives, children age fourteen and above are allowed to choose their place of residence after divorce.
I felt for him as he described his feelings of betrayal and helplessness. He was not only personally hurt, but he was concerned for his daughter’s safety given her mother’s past history.
It is important to remember that although children are wooed and enticed by a multitude of things in our materialistic world, they first and foremost need good parenting. The fourteen-year-old daughter I describe above has every right to experience life in both of her parents’ homes. Keep in mind, though, that a fourteen-year-old girl also has a great need to know and experience her mother and share female interests.
My suspicion is that this daughter will probably be sorely disappointed when she finds out that her mom’s motivations are more selfishly driven, but there is no way to really know that until she has the experience. I advised this dad that he should sit down with his daughter and talk to her honestly about her decision.
Rather than feeling personally slighted by her decision, he should try to understand it from a daughter/mother perspective and give his child the freedom to experience her mom in a real way – even if that meant it would end up being a disappointing one. I suspected that her wanting to live with mom had less to do with the material rewards and more to do with this child wanting mom to prove herself as a parent.
Additionally, teenagers need to begin to make independent choices and experience the consequences of those decisions. Dad should let her know that if she is going to make this decision, she will need to commit to an extended period of time (like an entire summer or school year) so she knows she cannot simply bounce back and forth between homes everytime she doesn’t like the rules in the home. He also needs to let her know that if at any time she feels unsafe, she is welcome to come back to his home or if at the end of the trial period she decides to return, she is allowed to come back. This way, she is free to make a choice where there are both boundaries and options.
I encouraged dad that his five years of good parenting would likely be an asset to his daughter’s ability to make a good decision and that she would thank him someday for allowing her to have permission to discover her mom on her own.
When kids come home from the other parent’s house and tell you how much they have been indulged (eating out, vacations, toys, extravagant gifts), simply say “Wow, good for you! That’s really great your dad/mom can afford those things for you.” Then just focus on giving your children the best parenting you can give them, which means supporting their self-esteem, listening to and affirming their feelings, and setting loving and age-appropriate boundaries to keep them safe.
In the end, kids turn into adults and if they are responsible, caring citizens, you have given them the best gift a parent possibly can give. Nothing can replace the value of good parenting. Take heart – good parenting is about the richness in your heart, not your pocketbook.
Diane C. Dierks is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Atlanta. She is author of “Solo Parenting: Raising Strong & Happy Families” (Fairview Press 1997) and “The Co-Parent Tool Box” (Aha! Publishing 2014). Visit www.dianedierks.com for more info.