Ex-etiquette: Father’s Day spat

Q. My husband and his ex share their kids equally, but she tries to upset our family every chance she gets. I get along great with the kids, and for the past four years, I have taken them out to buy Father’s Day presents for their dad. Last year without asking me, his ex bought my husband a present from the kids: a Chief’s jersey (he’s a Chief’s fan). He loved it, but I forbid him to wear it because I know who really bought it. It wasn’t the kids. It was her! Am I being petty? What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. Yes, you’re being petty — and if you have to “forbid” your husband to do anything, you have bigger problems than his children’s mother buying him a present for Father’s Day.

Know this: Your husband has children and an ex-wife. If she doesn’t cooperate, being vindictive will do little to defuse the conflicts you’ll face. Of course she bought the jersey, not the kids, just as you have bought the present for the previous four years. It was never about who bought the present, but the unselfish act of buying it. Your actions are not teaching the kids to look for solutions when facing conflict. Your actions are teaching them to be spiteful and perpetuate conflict. That breaks all 10 Rules of Good Ex-etiquette for Parents, starting with Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 1, “Put the children first.” You are not.

The responsibility of buying presents “from the kids” usually falls to the bioparent unless the responsibility is relinquished to someone else — which it sounds like it was since you had been doing it for four years. The problem seems to be that a precedent was set, and when the kids’ mom changed her mind without consulting anyone, it upset your tradition and you felt your importance was diminished. It’s understandable that you’re upset. It still doesn’t let you off the hook.

A better way to approach this would have been for the parent figures to talk to each other. Yes, you and mom. Normally, I’d say mom and dad, but the present was a surprise for dad, and you’re in the mix now. Since you also live with the kids, your behavior influences them. It would be helpful if they saw positive interaction between two very important people in their lives. You and mom don’t have to go shopping together, but you should be able to simply touch base to coordinate efforts when a day like Father’s Day rolls around.

A more productive way to handle it would have been for Mom to pave the way prior to a possible change, saying something like: “You know the kids’ dad and I got along so poorly after our breakup that I couldn’t even take them out to buy him a present for Father’s Day. Thank goodness, things have improved, and I’m grateful you have done it over the last few years. This year I’d like to help the kids buy a little something for their dad.”

Your natural inclination might be, “No way, lady. That’s what WE do,” but don’t say it. Ex-etiquette for parents rule No. 5 is, “Don’t be spiteful.” Help pave the way for new beginnings no matter when they start. In the name of the children. That’s good ex-etiquette.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com.