Q. I'm a single mother of a very beautiful and perceptive 5-year-old daughter. I'd like to know what steps I can take to prevent the negative affects to her self-esteem that can come from having an absentee/inconsistent father. After four years of her father being absent, I took him to court for child support. He rebutted my petition with a request for visitation. I gladly obliged him and specified to the court that I wanted him to have supervised visits each week. I was hoping he'd take full advantage of this time to build a close relationship with our daughter. After the second month, he stopped calling.
How do I help this man understand the importance of making the effort to build a relationship with our daughter by involvement, instead of trying to buy a relationship with expensive gifts? He's turned into a "Disneyland daddy," the type who lets the child call him by his first name, isn't involved in her daily life, but shows up with lots of expensive guilt gifts. I've reminded him that, as her father, he's setting the precedent for what she'll expect from men in her life in the future, but he doesn't seem to care! It really disturbs me that when she sees him the first thing out of her mouth is, "Robert, what did you bring me?" instead of, "Hi, Dad, I'm glad to see you." I've asked him to have her call him Dad, but he refuses. My energy is spent trying to explain to this man that I need him to act like a parent, and to work with me and not against me to raise her.
I'm trying very hard to teach our daughter good values. She does pretty well with the rest of our family and at church and school, but it all seems to go out the window when her dad is around. I just don't want his irresponsible behavior to damage her emotions, self-image or character. Please offer some insight.
A. I'm less concerned about the expensive gifts than I am about your ex's inconsistency. While I understand your agreement on visits is based on your need for financial support, visits from a dad who would rather not visit or who doesn't show up when he's supposed to can be harder on a child than no visits at all. There's nothing more difficult for your daughter than repeated rejection. If your daughter's father would rather just send gifts than show up, perhaps you can suggest some gifts that are useful. She might be just as delighted with a new backpack or school clothes, and these would at least be practical.
You're unlikely to be able to convince this man to change his behavior if you weren't successful making changes when you were married to him. A man who hasn't bothered visiting his own child in four years is unlikely to suddenly want to become a good father. What's most important is to continue to make efforts to teach your daughter those good values you'd like her to have and introduce her to some other men in your life who care enough about you and her to be supportive of those values. An uncle, grandfather, good friends or neighbors are all good candidates for males who can become involved in positive ways. Furthermore, your daughter will be watching you as a good role model of how she is to grow as a female.
Families come in many varieties in our society today, and while a good two-parent family is ideal, an oppositional, difficult or inconsistent father can cause more problems than benefits. If he's willing to come, make the best of it, and if he drifts off, you may consider your daughter fortunate.
For a free newsletter about changing families, send a large self-addressed, stamped envelope to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI, 53094, or go to www.sylviarimm.com for more parenting information.
Dr. Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at www.sylviarimm.com. Please send questions to: Sylvia B. Rimm on Raising Kids, P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI 53094 or [email protected] To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.