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My ex gets all the glory — what can I do?

Single mom on a budget has a tough time competing with Dad's extravagant visits with their son.  Dr. Ruth Peters offers advice.

Last week’s column, involving a teenage girl who was bored with her visits with Dad, evoked a tremendous amount of e-mail — from kids, moms and dads. The concern in the following question was mentioned several times, as it seemed to be a common thread among parents struggling with how best to raise children of divorce.

Q:  I am a divorced mother of an 11-year-old son who is in the sixth grade. He lives with me and sees his father every other weekend. Since our divorce, his dad has been consistent in his visitation and my son loves to go with him. My problem is that his visits usually involve doing things that I just can’t afford to do on my budget. They go to movies, basketball games as well as trips to Disney World (we live in Florida). I’m glad that my son has the opportunity to do fun things with his father, but he often becomes angry with me when I tell him that I can’t afford to take him to the movies or out to dinner on our weekends together. Should I talk to his father about this, since trying to reason with my son doesn’t seem to work?

A:  It’s great that your child enjoys his dad so much and that they have a good relationship even though they don’t live together. This is all too uncommon in our society, and their relationship is to be applauded.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects is that you get to do most of the work in terms of raising your kid (monitoring teeth brushing, cooking meals, making sure that homework is done and getting the kid off to school on time, just a mention a few).  And, having to limit your expenditures and saying “no” to some of the things that he wants to do may make you appear to be somewhat Grinch-like in comparison to his father.

I don’t expect an 11-year-old to fully understand the situation, and even if he does, to not be somewhat resentful.  He’s a kid, and it takes years of maturity for a child to come to value your constant presence and caring, as well as all of the work that you’re doing in terms of daily maintenance and supervision. And, if you’re on a limited budget and Dad has access to greater funds, your son probably feels that there are less rules and more stuff to do when with his father. You probably feel unappreciated and that Junior is easily “bought” by the goodies available at Dad’s. Well, join the club — lots of single parents feel this way, and yes, it is not fair. But, if that’s the way it is, then it’s in your son’s best interest to help him to understand what really matters about parenting.

Talk with him, and try to explain that raising a kid involves much more than a trip to an amusement park or a new video game purchased at the toy store.  It takes hours of helping with math homework, having the guts to say “no” when a request is inappropriate or impossible to fulfill, and much time and concern about your child’s education, feelings, friends and self-concept. And, that’s just the beginning of the list. The problem is that children generally don’t appreciate that stuff when compared with an enticing day trip or an item purchased. However, as they mature through the teen years, many kids begin to “get it.” They start to notice how much you do for them, and often parent-child relationships blossom in the teen years as you are there each night to console, comfort and communicate. As morality and values develop, adolescents begin to understand that the parent-child relationship is very important, and that although material things (video games, clothing) are significant, a parent's trust and attention is far more valuable. In other words, he’ll eventually “get it” and begin to appreciate much of what you do for him.

But, while you’re waiting for the epiphany to occur, perhaps you can try some of the following to ease your pain:

Try talking with your ex-husband and describe your concerns about your son’s relationship with the two of you. Dad may be more helpful than you think and may agree to tone down the material aspects of the visitation. If he understands that his son may perceive him not just as a father but more as a playmate or money tree, perhaps he’ll be more motivated to change the situation. Eventually parents resent being used, and that’s exactly what seems to be happening in this case. Try to point out that it’s in both your son’s as well as his father’s best interests to focus the relationship upon things other than material or those that are pure fun. They need to have some down time to talk about life, friends and anything else that may be of interest. They should get to know each other as people, not as visitors on vacation.

If Dad is not interested in changing things, try to keep the situation in perspective. Your son’s reaction is quite normal and does not mean that he likes or loves you less than his father. He’s just taking you for granted because he can — you’ve always been there and he knows that he can count on you. This may not be a particularly exciting point of view to aspire to, but it’s probably the reality of the situation. It’s human nature to take advantage of those whom we are most comfortable with, so in a sense his admiration for Dad and lack of appreciation for you is more a statement of his comfort in your relationship than a conscious choice on his part. Finally, it may be possible that the two of you can plan some exciting yet inexpensive adventures to do on your weekends together, or even after school. Camping trips, having some friends over to spend the night and watch videos, or joining him in learning a new sport or hobby may heighten the fun level as well as bring the two of you closer. There are always inexpensive alternatives to amusement parks, and many can be a better bonding experience in the long run.

Have faith — kids do grow up and understand what’s really important in a family. Hopefully he and his dad will evolve into a relationship based upon communication, commonality and trust —not upon material possessions and roller coaster rides. Dad would be wise to reassess how they spend their time, but that will be his decision, not yours. Focus your energy upon being there for the kid, enjoying each other, and raising a youngster with solid values and a good heart.

Copyright © 2006 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to the “Today” show. Her most recent book, “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” is published by Rodale. (See excerpts .) For more information you can visit her Web site at .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.