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The 'Uncle Dad Syndrome': When Divorced Dads Act Like Carefree Uncles and Why Their Kids Feel Cheated

04/02/2013 10:18 am ET | Updated Dec 18, 2014
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Some people call them "Disneyland Dads." I call them "Uncle Dads" -- divorced dads who parent the way you'd expect bachelor Uncle Bob to act when he watches your kids for the weekend. The "Uncle Dad Syndrome" is not just about indulging the kids. It's the entire personality of this dad and how he parents. While many dads successfully share custody and are tuned into their children's lives and needs, the Uncle Dad has difficulty doing this.

The classic Uncle Dad often shows up late to start his 2, 3 or 4-day custody stretch because he was "tied up at work" or "at the obligatory happy hour." He may be highly effective in his job, but he approaches parenting as: (1) play time; or (2) time for the kids to hang around his house while he's on his computer or phone or otherwise absorbed in his personal life.

The main characteristic of the Uncle Dad is he's preoccupied with his own needs and desires -- an unconscious self-absorption. He's an expert at "waterskiing through life," aware of what pleasures he wants to partake in, and resentful of anyone who gets in the way. For some of the time, he takes the kids along in his pursuit of fun and the kids enjoy that. He's engaged with his kids so long as they're having fun (and it's not too long). That's the "Disneyland Dad" part of it.

But once the fun is over, he detaches and the kids are left to their own devices. He doesn't want to go much deeper than that and leaves most of the difficult, unpleasant and emotional parts of parenting to the mother.

Kids do have a good time with their Uncle Dad, particularly when younger. Who wouldn't? There are few rules, not a lot of structure. Kids, if you have homework -- don't worry about it, dad will probably forget. You don't want to practice piano, wear clean clothes or brush your hair or teeth? No problem -- dad won't notice or care. You want to play video games all morning? See a PG-13 movie when you're nine years old? Stay up late on a school night? Play on your iPod for hours on end?

"Let the kids be kids," say these dads. "They're just having fun. How can it hurt? I've got to finish this email or take this call. I can't entertain them all the time."

So what's wrong with this, you may ask?

• Talk with moms who are in a custody share with an Uncle Dad. These mothers are exhausted and worried. The kids aren't getting what they need from their dad during crucial developmental years and the mothers are on the front line witnessing how it is affecting them.

• Most of the "not-so-fun" duties of raising the children are falling on these moms. They're trying to re-enter the work force or hold down a job as a single parent after divorce and they're drowning in responsibility. The moms have to pick up the pieces -- the forgotten homework, missed events and appointments, junk food diets and overtired, sunburned kids -- when the kids get back from Dad's house. And to add insult to injury, the moms are perceived as the "bad guy" while "Dad is so fun!"

• Finally, have a talk with older kids who have an Uncle Dad and you'll get a mouthful. They feel disappointed by their dad, time and time again, and don't appreciate this hands-off parenting in the long run.

Children are myopic in how they view their parents only up to a certain age. When they start to fall behind in school because of missed homework, when their dad isn't there at events where other dads are showing up, when dad is preoccupied with texting or emotionally checked out -- kids start to notice. They voice their concerns to their mother and turn to her for help.

"Mom, can you pick me up at Dad's house so I don't miss my game?"
"I need help on a project and Dad is too busy to help me."
"Mom, I don't think Dad will make it to my scout event so can you come?"

This generation is aware of what it takes to get into college by the time they're in middle school. They might fight with the parent who has house rules, but at the same time they really appreciate and want parental support. By puberty, kids see their parents for who they are. They know which parent they can count on.

What Uncle Dads don't grasp is that mature parenting involves a hundred small tasks -- many of them routine, boring, unpleasant -- but which make children feel secure and cared for and help them succeed. Tasks such as: getting them to bed on time so they aren't struggling the next day in class; having clean clothes and necessary school supplies; stocking the house with healthy food; making breakfast instead of letting them skip it or eat a sugary breakfast bar; taking an interest in their academics; getting to know their teachers and attending school events and conferences; encouraging them in their pursuit of sports, music, drama, dance, science, or whatever else they are drawn to (and this includes setting aside time for lessons, practices, performances, exhibits); quizzing them for a test; finding a tutor when they need one; following their sports schedule; making sure they have what they need for the weekend (schoolbooks, clothes, sports equipment) before leaving mom's house; taking them to the doctor, dentist and orthodontist; staying home with them when they are sick and need comforting.

Uncle Dad parenting might have worked decades ago when parents had traditional roles and kids were free to "grow up like weeds." But we live in a very different world. Most moms work and kids' lives are more demanding. Uncle Dads need to step up to the plate the way other divorced (and married) dads have.

This is not about moms vs. dads, men vs. women. It is about kids -- and raising awareness. There are varying degrees of the Uncle Dad syndrome, some dads being more extreme than others. After observing what happens to a lot of these kids over time -- well, I think it's worth raising a little hell about.

In the long run, the mothers eventually learn to cope and find outside support from friends, family, babysitters (or from a new spouse) to help them raise their kids. They become resigned to the Uncle Dad's behavior and stop expecting more.

The kids are the casualty, however. In adolescence, the boys may flounder or struggle with low self-esteem or depression because they lack a mature and genuinely involved male role model. The girls may do better in adolescence since their gender role model is their mother. However, they often latch onto a boyfriend to give them validation, and as adults, they can have low self-esteem and poor judgment in their relationships with men.

Kids with Uncle Dads struggle to understand why they feel so let down by their dad. After all, dad isn't abusive, he loves them, he's basically a nice guy, and their father-child relationship doesn't involve much conflict. It's usually not until the kids reach adulthood that they start to figure out what went wrong. By then, the damage is already done.