Hey, divorced parents, here is a game you should never play with your kids: Don't compete for the title of most popular parent. The problem with doing this is that even when you win, you lose--and worse than that, so do your kids.
The title of most popular parent comes at a steep price: It costs at least some (and quite possibly all) of your parental authority. Parenting requires telling your kids things they don't want to hear sometimes -- like no. And parents who want to be popular are reluctant to do that because it causes them to lose popularity points with their kids -- and that's what these parents value the most.
Once you lose your parental authority, you stop being a parent and turn into a friend, instead -- and not even a good friend, but rather an insecure, selfish friend whose main concern is being liked. That's a really bad trade for your kids.
Even worse than the parent who wants to be most popular is the parent who actually wants their kids to hate their other parent. Your kids will figure out that they don't have to do what you say. No pitching in around the house, keeping their grades up or being responsible or considerate. All that is required of them to stay in your good graces is to hate their other parent. If and when you give them any push back over anything else, all they have to do is threaten to start liking their other parent. This doesn't even have to be an express threat. Even just a hint will do, like a request to spend an extra weekend over there, or the nuclear option: Saying something positive about the other parent's new romantic interest.
Your kids know that if they give you even the faintest whiff of any of that, you'll back down on whatever you're asking of them and start showering them with perks again. Because in the end, all that really matters to you is winning the competition against your ex.
In this super no-fun game, you not only cease to be an effective parent, you interfere with their relationship with their only other parent. And on top of all of that, you teach them to be emotionally manipulative and condition them to think that all of this is all part of a normal family dynamic.
When you play this game, here are the possible "prizes" you'll be competing for:
• Your kids will grow up to be emotional train wrecks who are unable to have healthy work place and personal relationships of their own.
• It may take until adulthood, but your kids will figure things out eventually, and then they will shut you out of their lives for what you did to them.
• Your kids will end up having to choose between you and their other parent -- a painful and unfair position that no kid should ever be put in. And even if you "win" and they choose you, you have cheated them out of getting to have a relationship with both of their parents, no matter how imperfect each of their parents happen to be.
• Rather than choosing between their two parents, your kids will keep their distance from both of you, and they will dread milestone events in their lives, like graduations and weddings, because being around both parents at the same time is painfully uncomfortable.
• All of the above -- although, not necessarily at the same time.
It's one thing if your divorce makes you want to be a better parent. That's taking something negative and making something good come out of it. But, wanting to be the most popular parent or the only parent your kids like is taking something negative and super-sizing it into full blown tragedy -- a tragedy that hurts your kids more than anyone else. Your kids deserve better than that -- and you are capable of delivering what they deserve.
Make the most of the time you have with your kids. Put down your smart phone and buy in. Have occasional projects you do together as a family -- projects that require your kids to participate, rather than simply being entertained, or worse yet, fawned over or pampered.
There's nothing wrong with the occasional mani/pedi or night at the movies, of course; but, don't forget to balance these out with nights where everyone pitches in to get dinner on the table, or the basket of clean clothes folded and put away.
If it is your nature to compete, compete against yourself. Set your sights on being a better parent after your divorce than you were before. Don't fall for the fake; remember that you're playing the long game -- the one where "winning" involves raising your kids to be healthy adults with their interpersonal skills fully developed and personal relationships in tact.
When it comes to playing with your kids, choose games that are actually fun, not ones that make them miserable and end up leaving scars. Think card games like Bullshit, not head games like Your-Dad-Is-Full-of-Bullshit. No one likes that game. Above all, strive to be a good parent, not a popular one. Say yes all you want to quality family time, but never, ever jeopardize your willingness or ability to say no.