Mo’ Households, Mo’ Problems: The Double-Edged Sword of Parenting Plans

In family law proceedings, the court often discusses “the best interests of the child” when deciding child-related issues in court.  The courts will establish a parenting plan, require that parents complete a parenting course, as well as order anything else they find necessary to promote the health, safety and well-being of a child. The goal of the court is for the child to grow up in homes with loving and supportive parents, as well as develop close and meaningful relationships with both parents.

All of these things sound great, right? However, is it possible that some of these things can become a double-edged sword over time? Think of it this way, on one hand, there is the unfortunate situation where a child is forced to split their time and lives between both parents. On the other hand, a child’s life essentially also doubled when their parents split. So, this split ultimately can result in double the vacations, double the holidays, double the ‘stuff’, double the attention, and double the size of the family.

Double the Vacations and Double the Fun

When the court orders a timesharing schedule, a parent is going to be awarded certain days to spend with their child, as well as certain holidays, and school breaks.  Although this can be an adjustment, there is a silver-lining in this, and that is that it pushes parents to plan better.  If you grew up in an intact family, chances are unless there was one specific vacation that your family took yearly, vacations were sporadic.  Chances are a lot of Spring Breaks or Winter Breaks passed by so fast, that your parents didn’t even think about planning a vacation.  However, when parents are set to follow a parenting plan, it creates more of an incentive to plan.  For example, if a parent knows they have their children for “X” amount of days in the summer, they are more likely to plan something to do with their kids during that time. Or if parents only have their kids every other weekend, they are likely going to plan activities that they probably wouldn’t normally do on a weekly or daily basis.

What is the result of this? Well, think about it this way.  Each parent wants to be able to experience vacations and life experiences with their child.  So, if you have a child living with Mom, and Mom wants to take the kids on vacation during the summer, but so does Dad, you are already looking at twice the vacations than that would have been had if the child were to live under one roof with both parents.  In some scenarios where each parent is bidding to be the ‘fun parent’, the scheduling of vacations or fun activities can result in a tit for tat competition. For example, maybe planning a vacation didn’t cross Dad’s mind yet, but then he hears from his son that his Mom is taking him on a cruise this summer. Naturally it will be a reminder to Dad to plan something, when it may have slipped his mind otherwise.  Now Imagine that Dad also wants to fly to visit family that year, and that Mom wants to do a trip around Christmas Break, and on Dad’s year for 4th of July he wants to do  ‘quick getaway’ while he can.  These trips and events start to add up, and before you know it, a child is going more vacations than most adults even go on in a single year.

This may not sound like the worst problem in the world, right? What is so wrong with a child getting out and traveling or engaging in fun life experiences? Generally, the answer to that question is probably “nothing.” However, at some point it can create unrealistic childhood experience.  It may prevent children from being able to appreciate some of the smaller enjoyments in life, and just being a kid. It causes a child to lose out on spending time to just relax at home on school breaks, where they are already in a position where they lose out on time at each home. It may prevent a child from learning how to create their own fun and instead, create the expectation that parents are always responsible for providing the entertainment. It also can make vacations less special and less appreciated when a child knows that they are going to have many more throughout the year.

Double the Holidays

Holidays can be an even more sensitive area for divorced parents, or co-parents when it comes to raising a child. Each parent wants to feel that they have contributed to their child’s unique holiday memories, as well as enjoy the benefits of parenting by experiencing them with their child. This is completely understandable. However, it is important to be mindful of what that outcome may look like.

  • Does Santa Claus come to both homes, or just one?
  • Do parents also buy gifts, or just Santa? In both homes?
  • Does the child have one or two elves on the shelf—is it one per household, or one per child? If they have two, do the elves go to both houses every day?
  • Does the Easter Bunny come to both houses, or just one? Who is bringing the Easter basket this year- the parents and the Bunny, or the Bunny only?
  • Hanukkah, if a parent only has their child for half of Hanukkah, do they buy gifts for four days or all eight?
  • If while together, the parents would typically do one big joint gift on a birthday, does that mean now they do two, or one, or none?
  • Who gets to plan the birthday party—who is in charge of the invite list?
  • If Dad only gets to spend a couple hours on the child’s birthday with them, should he plan a family get together to celebrate the next time the child is with him? What if Mom also had a family birthday party? Is a third party with friends too much?
  • Who gets to make the first day of school sign? Do we need to have two? Do we even need to have one?
  • Is the child getting double the Valentine’s Day Love, and St. Patty’s Day Luck, and what is the going rate of the Tooth Fairy anyhow?

These questions and areas of concern all may seem a little over the top, but for children living in split homes, these are very real situations, and they barely make up the tip of the iceberg.  Although a lot of these things seem easy to work out, it would surprise people to know how many parents feel the need to celebrate these milestones as if they were the only parent responsible for doing so, and cause a child to constantly compare the experiences in both homes, instead of appreciate them.  These issues become even more contentious in high-conflict families where hostility between the parents results in a lack of willingness to communicate or agree on how a child should be raised.

Double the ‘Stuff’

Of course, a parent is responsible for controlling the amount of toys, activities, clothes, shoes, pets, electronics, and other things their child has, but there is no way to control how much the other parent provides. There are some things that a child will inevitably need two of because they will need them at both homes (like toothbrushes, toiletries, school uniforms, things for entertainment, etc.).             However, if you are a divorced parent with a child, you know that it becomes a lot more than just the basics.  It becomes:

  • Double the bikes, or scooters, or rollerblades because those are all difficult to transport back and forth
  • Double the TVs if your child has one in their room, or maybe even double of a laptop or computer if the family shares one, and the child needs to have access to it for schoolwork at both homes
  • Double the sporting equipment
  • Double the gaming systems
  • Double the pets (fish, cats, dogs, hamsters, turtles, bunnies)
  • Double the clothes, because only so many can fit in a sleepover bag
  • Double the books, movie downloads, Disney+ subscriptions, board games, and stuffed animals
  • Double the shoes, and should it even be mentioned how quickly kids grow out of those?

These things add up, and the list could go on and on.  Although a child should have all of these things, it can quickly lead to a serious sense of entitlement.  When children are young, they grow out of things so quickly, that it can feel like every month they need a new bike, bigger shoes, or more clothes. Or, perhaps they even just mature out of their toys, video games, and books twice as fast. This means twice the purchasing by parents, and twice the receiving for children.

Double the Attention

Who doesn’t love some attention? It should be great for a child to be admired and given attention, but is there a chance that double the homes may lead to a disproportionate amount of attention for a child? Think about these things:

  • Both parents constantly asking about how the same day in school went, how the same math test went, how the child did on the same spelling test. Rewarding a child for the same good grade on a book report.
  • A child being punished at one house for bad behavior, but able to avoid all consequences of it at the other home.
  • Both parents attending every doctor’s appointment, and dentist appointment.
  • Both parents wanting to be present or being required to be present at every event in the child’s life regardless of how inconsequential it is, or if it would normally be an event that one or both parents would sit out.
  • Both parents rewarding the child for the same athletic, musical, or artistic project or accomplishment, as if they were the only person to praise the child.

This isn’t to say that both parents shouldn’t acknowledge or praise their child for good behavior, good grades, or their talents, but parents should be mindful of giving a disproportionate amount of praise and attention for those things. For example, if a child gets an A on their spelling test one week at Mom’s house, and the next time they are at Dad’s they only mention the A from last week and not the C from this week, it may cause a child to reap benefits for longer from their good performance, while also hiding some of their less impressive performance. A child knowing that he or she can get a “second wave” of praise from another parent, may hinder their desire to continue to perform at his or her full potential. Additionally, overly praising a child for certain tasks can result in an inflated ego and narcissism, especially in cases where the child is able to avoid responsibility for behavior that took place at the other parent’s home. Too much praise can cause a child to become lazy over time and complacent with satisfactory performance. It can make a child grow up to expect praise for basic tasks, which can make them come off as demanding, discourteous or obnoxious at times, while they feel deserving of such high admiration. It can give them a false sense of a high self-esteem that will fail when they are unable to meet the demands of society.

Double the Families

When a couple divorces, or breaks up, it is inevitable that the parents will ultimately end up in new relationships or get remarried. This can result in a whole new level of love and attention.  Before the child had at a minimum, two sets of grandparents, as well as possibly some aunts and uncles. Post-a divorce or break up where one or both parents remarry,  the child will now have, at a minimum, new aunts or uncles, and at least four sets of grandparents (unless of course, divorce runs in the family, which in that case, the number of aunts, uncles, and grandparents can be endless).  This can result in double or even triple the Christmas gifts, the birthday gifts, the attention at holidays, the ‘checking in on them’ just for fun.  Without looking at the bigger picture, this can result in an overwhelming, and abnormal amount of attention, gift-receiving, and sense of self-importance

What Happens When the Siblings Start to Double?

The amount of love, attention, gifts, praise and everything else that results from being a child in a divorced or split home can be a lot.  And these things only get more complicated as time goes on- especially in homes where there are half-siblings, or in some cases step siblings.  Then the issues start to look like:

  • “Why did my brother get twice the gifts from Santa?”
  • “She already got to pick out the Christmas tree at her other house, it’s my turn!”
  • “It isn’t fair that my sister got twice the Hanukkah gifts”
  • “My sister got to hunt for Easter eggs twice”
  • “Why does my brother get two Halloween costumes”
  • “Why does my brother get to go on so many more vacations?”
  • “Why do we only get to do fun things when my sister is here?”
  • “Why does my brother get to celebrate his birthday so many times—he got to pick out three cakes this year?”
  • “Why do my sister and I have the same number of toys- she spends less time here than me?”

In addition, there has to be some consistencies. If you want to limit gift giving by step-uncles and step-aunts, but they still buy gifts for the child common to you and your new spouse, how do you explain this to your kids? If you end up buying more gifts for your child common to both you and your new spouse to compensate for the amount of gifts your other child receives from two homes, how do you explain that, and is that healthy anyway? What about everyday life decisions? Do you never let your child have a pet because they live with you part-time? Do you leave them out of a family vacation, because you are worried that they will become entitled over time or cause your other children to feel less privileged than the other? Are they going to be forced to stay home from a family bike ride because they do not have a bike that fits them? These questions are real, and they will come up, and it becomes hard at times to answer them. These are just a few of the stumbling questions that parents are forced to think about.

Double the Homes Requires the Unity of Double the Parents

This post is not to discourage the praise, the celebrations, the sharing of life experiences, gift-giving, or any other exciting or rewarding part of parenting or your kid’s childhood. The point of this post is to open parents’ minds to the reality of what a divorced household often ends up looking like for many children.  These scenarios are especially prevalent when both parents are determined to be “the best parent” or want to make sure their child always has certain things and is exposed to certain experiences. Sometimes the “best interests of the child” becomes a motive for parents to unknowingly overindulge a child, while not realizing that such gestures are going to happen on both sides.  It is important for parents to view the “the best interest of the child” from a big-picture perspective, taking into account the experiences, the rewards, the consequences, the obstacles, and the attention that the child is exposed to in both homes, and use that as a foundation for creating a better balance in their child’s life.