I am not the fun parent. I am the eat-healthy-foods, do-your-homework, clean-up-your-room, go-to-bed-on-time parent.
I am responsible, organized, and nurturing. I comply with most of the recommendations provided to me by pediatricians and parenting experts. For example, in my house, the kids rarely exceed two hours of screen time per day, and we often skip TV entirely on school nights.
All of these qualities make me a good mom, but they don’t make me fun. My ex-husband is fun.
Our kids binge-watch movies and TV shows, play video games, and eat sugary snacks at his place. Bedtimes run late. Homework doesn’t get done. On school mornings, breakfast can consist of chocolate cereal. He once sent my daughter to school in pajamas – and not on one of those school-sanctioned pajama days. When it comes to toys, he has a never-say-no, collect-the-whole set mentality. I’m convinced there isn’t a Nerf gun in existence he doesn’t own.
At first, when our kids came home tired, underfed, and overstimulated from visiting their father, I tried to talk to my ex about it. I made pleas on behalf of the children’s well-being and their need for consistency, sleep, and nutritious food. That exercise was pointless. It resulted in him claiming “different house, different rules.” He abruptly dismissed my discomfort with his Disneyland Dad parenting style.
When we separated, our kids, ages 3 and 7 at the time, ranked fun above all other qualities in a parent, as kids that age often do.
They preferred spending time with their dad because he thought and acted like a kid. I’m not going to lie: their preference hurt. Since I couldn’t compete in the realm of fun, I doubled down on responsibility.
I got stuck with the heaviest, least fun aspects of parenting. The whole situation struck me as so unfair. I complained about my lot in life to a divorced dad I knew. He didn’t sugarcoat it. He told me point blank, “Dads are more fun. It’s the space they occupy. You aren’t going to change that, but you can be fun, too.”
With those words of advice, I embarked upon my self-imposed Fun 101 course. Here are the lessons I learned:
Lesson #1: Don’t begrudge the kids their fun
Kids like to have fun. They dislike it when adults try to put an end to their fun. It really is that simple. In the beginning, when my kids recounted visits with their dad, I said things like “but you know that’s not good for your body” or “but you know we don’t do that here”. They didn’t want to hear it. To them, it was all in good fun and a temporary reprieve from Mom’s rules. I’m sure I seemed like a real downer.
I have since learned to anticipate and accept the types of activities they engage in during visits with their dad. I made a choice not to allow any information about the goings-on over there, no matter how outlandish, surprise me anymore. The first words out of my mouth when they return home are “did you have fun with Dad?” Regardless of the response, I smile placidly, nod my head, and say “Oh, that’s nice”. If I find out they haven’t eaten, I offer them a healthy meal. If I notice dark circles under their eyes, I subtly engineer an early bedtime. I strive to create a calm, peaceful transition for them and to meet their physical and emotional needs – without judgment and without comment.
Lesson #2: Compliment the fun parent’s good qualities
This one is hard. I divorced my ex-husband for many reasons and do not have a well-spring of positive feelings toward him. Here’s where I had to dig deep and remind myself why I married him in the first place. Listening to Gwen Stefani’s “Used to Love You” helps, because I did. I used to love him. Guess what? I married him because he was fun. He made me laugh. His spontaneity got me out of my responsible, uptight comfort zone.
When our kids tell me a funny story or a joke their dad told them, I laugh and say “Dad is funny, isn’t he?” I shine a positive light on his good qualities, on what he brings to their lives as the fun parent. He’s their dad. I want them to love him.
Lesson #3: Delegate the “fun” stuff that doesn’t appeal to you
This mindset drastically improved the quality of my life. Our kids often want to see movies that don’t appeal to me (Ice Age 4, anyone?). My go-to response now involves some version of “oooooh, I bet Dad will take you to see that one. Why don’t you ask him?” For toys I don’t want in my house, “ask Dad for that one.” I’ve even gone so far as to imply there are separate Santas – “Oooh, ask Dad’s Santa for that toy. My Santa doesn’t have that one in stock.”
Lesson #4: Play to your strengths
As a general rule, if I’m enjoying myself, it’s more likely my kids will, too. Instead of forcing myself to take them to loud indoor trampoline warehouses where teenagers dressed like referees annoyingly blow whistles at me, I took inventory of what I enjoy and what I do well. I then mapped the resulting list to my kids’ interests – a systematic approach to fun! Watching movies, cooking, reading, writing, swimming, walking, drawing, playing board games, traveling, listening to music, and dancing are all activities I love and can share with my kids. We soon discovered what gave us the most joy as a family.
Lesson #5: Make fun activities part of your routine
Once I figured out what fun meant for me and my kids, I carved out specific days and times for those events as part of our weekly routine. While scheduling fun probably sounds counter-intuitive, kids actually love predictability – almost as much as they love fun. When my kids know a fun event is coming, it serves as a great motivator for getting through the less fun things they have to do – like finishing their homework, eating a healthy dinner, brushing their teeth, and taking a bath – because they know there’s a reward at the end of those tasks.
Selfishly, it gives me something to look forward to as well. I get to stop doing household chores, sit down, and enjoy quality time with my kids – snuggles guaranteed!
Lesson #6: Kids eventually grow up and value more than just fun
My son, now 10 years old, recently returned from a visit with his dad that involved spending an entire day watching movies and TV shows, playing video games, and eating fast-food pizza, chips, and candy. The next morning, he joined me in the utility room and watched me sort laundry. He brought his spelling homework with him, sat cross-legged on the floor, and got to work – without being asked. He told me, “Mom, I really missed you yesterday. Can I just sit here and keep you company?” My heart has never been so full.
Lesson #7: Occasionally, and in moderation, be the Disneyland (or Disney World) parent
I say “No” a lot.
“Mom, can I buy [insert high-cost toy here]?” “No.”
“Can I watch [insert age-inappropriate movie here]?” “No.”
“Mom, can I stay up late and watch TV?” “No.”
“Can I have [insert brand-name sugary cereal here] for breakfast?” “No.”
Some days I feel like I veto everything they want. There are, however, rare, magical moments when I surprise them and say “yes”.
The look on their little faces when I decide to indulge them is priceless. Occasionally, I want to treat them, and I do. They are good kids. They deserve it. I am also teaching them the value of delayed gratification, of saving up for something big, something you really, really want. We saved for two years – me for the trip and them for the souvenirs – before visiting Disney World for the first time in their lives at ages 6 and 10.
At the end of the trip, as I handed out boarding passes at the Orlando airport, my then-fiancé turned to my children and said “you two should thank your mom for planning such a great vacation for you. She did everything, and all you had to do was show up and have fun.” My organized, responsible mother heart glowed at the weight of this compliment. Maybe I have it in me to be fun after all.