The “Disneyland Dad” Dilemma

As a single parent, I’ve often been mystified by what I call the “Disneyland Dad” phenomena – I call it that because I’m a single mom, but there are “Disneyland Moms” as well. It involves the fascination and adoration children offer the parent that is absent. The full-time, hands-on parent responsible for day-to-day exhausting details, discipline, and education is the “bad” parent. Whereas the one that is usually absent is held on a towering, teetering pedestal. The uninvolved parent can “swoop in” and do the smallest thing, spend 15 minutes of attentive time, or offer the tiniest treat and swoop back out again an absolute hero. WTH?!?

I’ve discussed this phenomenon with many of my friends and family members. We all agree that it’s a real thing and that it sucks. Honestly, I’m sometimes a little envious of the freedom enjoyed by (and the good will offered to) the absent, or less involved, parent. The involved parent is the one who provides everything, so rather than being grateful for what is provided, the child focuses on being angry for what is missing — no matter how minute.

It seems the LESS a parent does, the more awesome they are in the eyes of a child. (It doesn’t require a single parent, this phenomena pops up in stable two-parent families, too.)

It’s all about expectation. Children expect the full-time parent to do for them — to do everything all the time. So they can safely be taken for granted. The full-time parent is a “given” — as well as a constant giver.

Then I did some thinking… people (children and adults alike) prefer the unexpected treats to those that are guaranteed. That’s why bonus checks are so cool at the end of the year. That’s why flowers for no reason trump the ones for occasions or those for “I’m sorry.” That’s why even lab rats will repeat an activity for occasional treats more often than for treats that appear every time. When we know something is going to be there, we take it for granted. When some unexpected treat appears, no matter how small, it’s like a gift on Christmas morning.

This revelation has also made me realize that parenting isn’t about providing all the best that you can for your kids, materialistically. (Yes, of course I knew that, but sometimes I lost sight of it while trying to anticipate their wants and needs rather than waiting for them to want something for awhile.) Parenting is about giving them the security of firm boundaries and occasional, unexpected, rewards. If they have free reign, then there are no surprises — they just keep pushing the boundaries until they get what they want. (Or until they drive their parents crazy.) Boundaries and occasional “just because” rewards work best.

Yay! I can do that! 🙂

(If only I had discovered this at the BEGINNING of my parenting career, instead of during the home stretch…)

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