When coparents are petty

I heard a new one the other day. It doesn’t happen all that often, at this stage in the game, but yesterday it did. I was talking to a woman who told me that her child’s father, after their divorce, tried to one-up her in every single way imaginable – even with the tooth fairy!

My son is only two, so I don’t have to deal with the whole tooth fairy thing yet. It’s my understanding, though, that the going rate for teeth has increased since my childhood. When I was a kid, I got $1 per tooth, and I felt really good about it. I can see the wisdom of including bills rather than coins; coins wouldn’t really stay in place under the pillow, and, anyway, what can you do with a quarter? It’s not 1925.

Now, I hear that parents regularly give a couple of dollars or as much as $5 per tooth. It seems pretty steep to me!

Anyway, the woman I was talking to told me that her child’s father went SO out of his way to one-up her that he gave their son $100 for a tooth.

This was also, by the way, when he wasn’t paying child support, and she was struggling to support herself.  (But isn’t that always the way?)

My immediate reaction was, “Well, he’s the idiot who is $100 poorer,” and, then, immediately on it’s heels, “Money to the tooth fairy doesn’t count towards unpaid child support!” But I do think that things like this are bigger than that. It’s a specific, concerted, deliberate attempt to appear cooler in the eyes of the child and to make your co-parent suffer.

One of the biggest fears I hear from moms, especially moms of children who are slightly older, is that their child will tell her that he wants to live with dad. After all, dads often seem more fun, don’t they? They don’t worry about pesky things (like toothbrushing and homework) that moms insist on. They allow later bedtimes, ice cream for dinner, and unlimited video games. Of course, I’m generalizing here, but I’m generalizing based on what I’ve seen in tons of cases. And moms worry that, in light of their more responsible parenting, un-responsible dad is going to get the reputation of being the fun parent. What child wouldn’t want to live with the fun parent?

The tooth fairy thing, while sort of unimportant, is symptomatic of a bigger problem. (Though, for the record, I’d take $95 of it and put it in a college fund, and let the child keep the other $5, which he may have gotten for the tooth anyway. It may reinforce that “not cool” thing, but I can live with that.) When your child’s co-parent tries to constantly undermine you, what do you do?

It’s such a hard situation to be in. After all, if he’s determined to flout the rules and conventions, there’s not much you can do about it. And I know that it’s so unsatisfying to hear the golden rule (and it’s as unsatisfying now as when your mom first told you that in grade school, isn’t it?) but I do think that it applies here. Sure, it seems unfair that you have to follow the rules while he ignores them, but it’s especially important if your case is going to go to court. Not to be a Negative Nancy here, but my experience is that, if we’re bickering over tooth fairy money, you’re almost certainly going to find yourself in court on petitions to modify custody and visitation several times over the ensuing years.

Why is it so important that I follow the rules when he doesn’t?

There’s a doctrine called “clean hands”, and it’s important to keep in mind in cases like this. What it means that, if you want to go to court and allege that your child’s father isn’t following the rules, you can’t ignore the rules, too. Then, your hands are unclean. It’s hard for the judge to tell who didn’t follow the rules first. If you’re BOTH not following the rules, you look equally guilty. If, on the other hand, he isn’t following the rules and you are, it’s much, much easier for the judge to take your part.

It probably feels like he’s getting away with a lot, but ultimately you’re going to have to do the right thing in order for the judge to really see his antics for what they’re worth. Probably the judge won’t do anything about the tooth fairy thing, but it’s very clearly petty behavior. It may not be that important by itself, but it can help to show a pattern of negative behavior, and its impact on you, the child, and your coparenting relationship.

Take a court-approved coparenting course

I always think it’s a good idea, too, to attend a coparenting course. Even if he’s the one who needs to attend, you may learn some important coping strategies that can help you sneakily redirect his behavior into more productive channels. Often, I find that his bad behavior is an attempt to control and/or upset mom, not so much an attempt to woo the children, so it may be that, if you stop reacting or respond in a way that gives him what he wants, it may stop on its own.

It’ll also be a very good thing to show the judge, especially if you do it before he orders it! Judges often order coparenting classes, and there’s a list of court approved coparenting course facilitators. If you’re not sure who is approved, contact your local juvenile court or our office at 757-425-5200 for a list of people to choose from. (Imagine how the judge would view you if he recommends that you take coparenting classes, and you present him with your certificate on the spot! It says, “I take this so seriously I choose to do it on my own time and without being ordered to by the court.”)

Talk to a therapist

There’s no question that dealing with stuff like this is difficult. It can make you angry and upset your emotional balance. There’s nothing more frustrating than issues like this, especially because it doesn’t only affect you – it hurts, confuses, and upsets your children, too.

Talking to a licensed mental health professional can help you deal effectively with your feelings and, moving forward, give you coping techniques both for dealing with your child’s father, but also help you speak with your children and help them to understand the situation. Dealing with these things in a healthy way is incredibly important, and this is just one more way you can insulate yourself and your children from any fallout from your child’s father’s behavior.

Talk to an attorney

It’s always a good idea to talk to an attorney about your case, so that you can get a good idea of what important next steps you should be taking. If your child’s father is shelling out $100 for the tooth fairy, for example, and not paying your child support, you need to take action.

It’s not a perfect situation. You know that. But by taking the steps you need to protect yourself – and having an attorney to help you do it – can help discourage this behavior and help you and your children begin to move forward.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.

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