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You've told your 11-year-old daughter she'll need to wait until she's 13 to get a cell phone, but when she returns from birthday visit with her dad she has a sleek new smartphone in hand. This isn't the first time spoiling has interfered with your parenting, either. A month ago, your daughter informed you that she was allowed to watch as much television as she wants at her dad's house, while your house rules state no television until after homework is done, and then no more than an hour of screen time.
This scenario is not uncommon, according to Lorraine Proud, LPC, a veteran counselor at Nacogdoches High School in Nacogdoches, Texas. "The primary custodial parent may stick to specific rules such as being home by 10 o'clock, while the other parent allows them to stay out until midnight," she said.
Divorced parents don't usually intend to spoil their children. Often, spoiling occurs because of "plain old guilt," said Proud. A parent may think, "I don't spend enough time with my kid," and end up throwing money at the situation to garner affection or respect. Of course, there are some parents who do intentionally spoil -- with the goal of wanting to be better liked than the other parent or to one-up that person.
When a couple divorces and one parent is more permissive with the child than the other, it sets the stage for a number of problems. "It can train children to be manipulative," warned Proud. Children in this type of situation tend to play one parent off the other, with an atmosphere of chaos and drama often being the result. This situation "reduces the emotional stability of the child, because what is right and what is wrong is always up in the air and becomes something to be negotiated. Kids learn to bargain -- "They're just like little attorneys at the age of 12," said Proud.
If you're divorced, you've probably figured out that you have no control over your ex-spouse's behavior. Nevertheless, you can work to lessen the effect that your spouse's extravagant and permissive ways have on your children. "First and foremost," said Proud, "parents should never involve the children in any kind of conflict between the two parents." Wait until your cell-phone loving daughter is in bed before you call her father.
Proud also advised "sticking by what's right and not giving in." For example, you might say, "I disagree with your having a cell phone when you are 11 years old. We've talked about that before. When you are at your father's house, you live according to his rules, so you can use the cell phone there."
"Ideally, divorced parents will discuss a potentially sticky situation ahead of time and agree how it should be handled," said Proud. This way, your daughter doesn't come home from a visit with her mom with a couture prom dress casually draped over her shoulder. But if productive communication was that easy, you'd probably still be married.
Nevertheless, you should still make an attempt to convey your concerns. Talk to your ex, avoiding accusatory language such as "You are going to turn our daughter into a selfish snob!." You might say, "I'm worried about Alison becoming alienated from her friends when they see she's wearing a $5,000 dress at the prom. The jealousy could cause her to have some social problems. What do you think?"
It can be tempting to simply give up and relax your limits at home to avoid arguments and appearing to be the "bad guy." Don't give in, though. "Go to the park or do a project together. Remind yourself that setting limits is for your child's best interest, even when it's difficult or uncomfortable to say 'No'," said Proud. "Keep in mind that spending time with your children doesn't need to involve expense. Some of the simpler things in life will be the things that matter the most."