Admit it. You feel guilty about your divorce. So guilty, in fact, that you want to buy your kids presents to try to make it up to them. Something like a new puppy, because a little furry bundle of love will make them feel better. Or a new X-Box 360, because all that game playing will surely cheer them up. Or a bunch of new clothes so they will get the message that their life is so much better when they're with you.
While owning up to these feelings isn't wrong, acting on them would be. Sending your kids the message that you think their feelings are up for sale is as insulting as it is damaging.
But I have some good news for you. There are five gifts you can give your kids after your split that are actually good for them -- and it won't cost you a dime.
- Make your house a home. Your kids need as much security and stability as possible in the wake of your divorce. And the physical manifestation of that is the space they live in. If your ex moved out and took the sofa with him, buy or borrow another one to replace it. If that's not possible, at least pull a couple of chairs around to fill the empty space. But don't completely rearrange everything because that can be unsettling, too. The goal is to eliminate the stress experienced by your kids every time they see the gaping hole where the sofa used to be. If you're the one who is moving, make sure your new place accommodates your kids. I'm not saying that each kid needs his own bedroom; but they at least need a bedroom. In other words, don't move to a one bedroom apartment and expect your kids to crash on the living room floor. Also, don't live out of boxes -- make sure to unpack and decorate. Put familiar things up on the walls. Have your kids' artwork and family photos on display. Not only should your new space feel homey -- it should feel like their home.
- Root for your ex to be a good parent. Just as a terrible singer can nonetheless be a good dancer, the fact that your ex was a bad spouse doesn't mean he or she is also a bad parent. And there's nothing like a divorce to make even the least attentive parent suddenly begin campaigning for Parent of the Year. If you've been doing the lion's share of the parenting all along, that can be hard to take. Maybe you're correct in your suspicion that your ex's newfound interest in parenting is only for appearances, or to gain an advantage in the divorce, or to curry favor with the kids (or all of the above), and not because he or she's had a change of heart and doesn't want to miss out on any more precious childhood moments. But at the end of the day, this is one of those situations where the motivation doesn't really matter. If your kids emerge from the divorce with a better parent, who cares what prompted the change? A more involved and attentive mom or dad is a good consolation prize for having to go through the upheaval of divorce. So, don't cheat your kid out of this chance by undermining or sabotaging your ex's efforts to be a good parent.
- Don't use your kids as your BFFs. It goes without saying that you shouldn't talk trash about your ex to your kids. But even if you're not talking trash, you shouldn't use your kids as your confidants. It's okay for your kids to pick up on the fact that you are sometimes sad or upset as a result of the divorce. After all, you are human. And seeing you work through the inevitable ups and downs in a healthy way models for them how adults handle difficult times. But turning to your kids when you need a shoulder to cry on reverses the roles of parent and child and can interfere with your kids' relationship with both parents. Using your kids as your emotional support can make them reluctant to ship off to spend time with your ex because they are worried about leaving you alone. So turn to your friends when you need some shoring up. And let your kids turn to you when they need the same.
- Don't date until your divorce is final. Your job as a parent is to shepherd your kids through your divorce while protecting them from unnecessary drama. There is zero percent chance that firing up your love life before your divorce is final will make your divorce go more smoothly and make your home life more stable. Be a responsible parent and wait to date until your divorce is over and everyone is on solid emotional ground. Use this time to bond with your kids while everyone adjusts to the new configuration of your family. In the event that delayed gratification and impulse control just aren't your thing, at least keep your kids out of your love life. Rather than having your new love interest over to play house while your kids are home, take advantage of the built-in breaks provided by the custody arrangement and schedule your dates while your kids are with your ex.
- Don't divorce your kids. Whether the split up was your idea or not, divorce provides an incredible opportunity for you to reassess where you are in life and make adjustments. It gives you the chance to close the book on bad habits as well as begin new story lines. But whatever new adventures are beckoning, it's not okay to write your kids out of your life. Your goal as a parent is to be left with a mountain of good memories when your kids are grown, not a river of regret. So go ahead and register for a French class, but don't up and move to France -- at least not yet. Your kids will be gone before you know it and then you'll be free to explore distant horizons. When it comes to the intersection of parenting and gift-giving, conventional wisdom says it's best to exercise restraint lest you spoil your kids. But these five gifts are the exception to the rule. You don't have to pick just one -- you can go crazy and give all five. Because the more of these you lavish on your kids, the better off they'll be. And you'll even get a gift in return: the peace of mind of knowing that you did the right thing.