Read any of the holiday articles for divorced parents and you'll see the same advice: Don't compete for your children's affection by buying bigger, more expensive, more elaborate gifts for the kids than your ex can afford. Fine. Most people would agree that's good advice. But what's a parent to do when the ex in question doesn't follow the rule?
"It's so frustrating!" My client is very upset. "I try to keep Christmas in bounds. I talk to my former husband about it every year. He barely takes time for the kids when they are with him. But Christmas comes and he inevitably violates every agreement we've made about it. Last year he agreed to get the kids snowsuits, something they needed, and he showed up with sleds, skis, and the promise of a day of winter fun at the local ski area. Meanwhile, they didn't have snowsuits so I had to buy them; an expense I hadn't counted on. What can I do to make him cooperate? He ends up looking like Santa and I end up looking like Scrooge!"
I sympathize. It's tough to be the parent who has to watch pennies while the ex spends dollars. It's tough to be the practical one. It's really, really hard to explain to young kids that the parent who comes up with the biggest present isn't necessarily the one who loves them the most.
What's a parent in this situation to do?
Here are 5 suggestions I hope will help you stay focused on making your own holiday with the kids a happy one:
1) Deal with your own feelings of regret, guilt, or sadness that you can't give them more in the way of material things. You have nothing to feel guilty for. Yes, we'd all like to "spoil" our kids a little at Christmas. But giving kids a good holiday is not about giving them a truckload of stuff. It's about affirming family bonds and family values. It's about warming them with memories of a time that is more special than any other time of the year.
2) Decline the invitation to compete. Just because your ex invites you to a competition doesn't mean you have to accept it. It makes no more sense to get into a "gift-giving war" than to get into an arena with lions. Someone will get emotionally bloodied and that someone is usually a child. Whichever adult "wins" the competition; the children lose because on some level they think the battle was their fault.
3) Have a serious talk with the kids. Don't make the mistake of underestimating your child. It's okay to tell kids that you have less money than your ex or that the two of you disagree about how money should be used. It's fine to explain to them that people show their love for them in different ways. They can understand that your ex can love them by giving them things they want. You can love them by doing some special things during the holidays. Make sure not to imply that the thing-giving parent is doing something inferior. That's buying into the competition. Stay matter-of-fact about it, give them a hug, and then move on to #4.
4) Focus on memories not on stuff. What kids need most is not the newest toy or the latest video game. What they need most is parental time and attention. Take a look through the local paper for holiday activities that are affordable and special. Go for a drive and look at the lights. String popcorn and cranberries for your tree. Camp out for the night next to your tree. Read aloud "The Night Before Christmas" and the Christmas Story. Make cookies and invite friends over to share them. Memories of traditions like these last years and years longer than the latest toy or game.
5) Trust that you kids will eventually understand. There's no need to bad mouth the parent who, in your opinion, is trying to buy your kids' affections. There's no need to point out to the kids what you think he or she is doing. There is absolutely no percentage in being critical of presents and events the other parent provides. Being negative only puts the kids in the middle of all the reasons you got divorced in the first place. Focus instead on what you can do to make the holidays a bright and special time for your children. Fill your home with warmth and love. Your kids aren't stupid. At some point they will figure out for themselves that what you provided is just as important as whatever your ex did for them. Most important, they will thank you for not asking them to take sides between two parents they love.