When I was a kid, my classmates would tell stories about their adventures during summer vacations spent with their respective families.
They usually went out of town, even out of the country—and their parents were praised as “heroes.”
But the best stories were from the ones who went to Disneyland, aka “The Happiest Place on Earth.” The memorable experiences of these kids would often be credited to “dad who brought us to Disneyland.”
Some of these same classmates would get excited when the school year was about to end because “dad is taking us back to Disneyland in the summer.” And then, a few years later, they would say how they dreaded the coming summer vacation because “dad is taking us to Disneyland again!”
This is a trap many fathers (especially those who don’t live with their kids) should be wary of. You can fall into it, whether you are a non-custodial father, you work abroad, or your child is studying in the province or in another country. You should beware of turning into what people refer to as the “Disneyland Dad.”
Many fathers who don’t often see their children are prone to feel that they have to make the most of every second when they visit. These men are driven to do so for different reasons: guilt; a desire to compete with an ex; fear of losing the love of their children; or trying to make up for lost time.
They buy their kids extravagant gifts, take them on costly trips, eat out for every meal, give in to their whims, neglect enforcing discipline—virtually treating them like visiting princes or princesses.
The dad usually saves up a lot of cash to spend on the kids and impress them (and other people) with his extravagance. But the Disneyland Dad’s visiting period with the kids is limited. Eventually he will run out of ideas and money.
After a while, everything becomes routine and the children stop enjoying the treat. Worse, the kids become so spoiled by the royal treatment that they react negatively when dad can no longer deliver.
Two things may happen if you’re this type of dad: The kids would resent you for not giving them their “due,” or they would think that you don’t love them anymore.
But even if you have limited time with your children, your goal is to maintain a relationship with them as normal as possible. You do not have to “buy” their love. If you sincerely care and really want to be with them, they will know. In return they will love you and want to be with you, too.
Here are some tips to help you avoid becoming a Disneyland Dad:
1. Plan ahead. Do not schedule every minute and second of each day, but try to make time for activities that involve fun and food. Have some private moments between you and each child. And also allow the kids to be by themselves.
2. Do not go over the top. Do not try to amuse the kids nonstop. There is no way you can maintain the pace. If you let them get used to gifts, treats and entertainment, they will resent you if the pattern breaks.
3. Vary activities. Although kids like routines, they will get bored if you do the same thing over and over. You can check the notice boards at your church or in the community center for possible family events.
4. Do not try to make up for lost time. You cannot.
5. Let the kids make some choices of activities. They can choose from a list of options that you have made. They have to do it themselves—do not settle for “whatever you want, dad.” You do not have to do everything on the list. By letting them make choices, you’re training them to take some responsibility for your time together. It will also show them that you really care about what is important to them.
6. Set plenty of “down time.” Some weekends will be packed with wonderful activities, but not everything should be that way. Too many events that are packed into your limited time can be stressful for you and the kids. Psychologists say children (of all ages) need to spend time to learn how to entertain themselves—even if it means being bored.
7. Treat your kids as part of your household. If the children are visiting your house, they should feel as if they live there, too, as regular family members. They should not be treated like VIPs. This means that they should help with some chores and do normal things like homework. They must also follow the rules of your house.
8. Do not expect everything to be perfect. Some days you will be like a superhero with all the energy to run around doing lots of things, but there will be days when your battery needs to recharge and you just want to have a relaxing day at home. There are times when the kids will have disagreements and end up fighting with each other and even with you. This is normal for all families, so don’t worry.
9. Do normal things. There are things that you just have to take care of at home. Let the kids help you do home repairs —even if it means just handing you the tools. My own kids like helping me cook meals by chopping vegetables and such. It is a great way to spend time with them and talk about each other’s lives without sounding like an interrogation. It also shows them that you are human with everyday responsibilities and obligations.
Hopefully, these tips may lessen any unrealistic expectations the kids may have about you, and ease any anxiety you have about giving your children a “great” time.
The most important part is that you let your kids see that you want them in your real life. They get to see the man who loves them. They get to see that they do have a father.