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Ex-etiquette: Taking husband’s kids shopping to buy gifts for their mother

Q: My husband works out of town. We share the kids with his ex and they continue to go back and forth between homes even when he’s out of town. (We have young children and the older kids miss their siblings if they don’t continue to see them on a regular basis.) Since my husband won’t be home until Christmas Eve, he’s asked me to take the kids shopping for a Christmas present for their mother. I think the request is way over the top. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. I don’t think it’s over the top at all, and if you can, I’d do it. Sometimes we have to step out of our comfort zone in the best interest of the kids in our care (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 1, “Put the kids first.”) If you aren’t comfortable it could backfire. If that’s the case, tell Dad to get a gift card or there may be an aunt or grandparent who can help.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken my bonus kids shopping to buy something for their mother – and it hasn’t just been Christmas presents. We’ve bought birthday presents and even Mother’s Day presents together. Sometimes their dad went along, but if he was unavailable and time was getting short, I did it.

At first it was a little weird, but I found that it brought me closer to the kids. They adored their mother, and the fact that they cared for me as well actually complicated things for them. For a time, they were quite secretive with both their mother and me about how they felt. They worried that liking me might hurt their mother’s feelings.

Liking a bonus parent can make a child feel guilty and fight feelings of allegiance or betrayal each time they go back and forth between homes. Taking the kids out to buy presents for their mom gave them permission to talk about her when I was around. We chatted about what she liked, what she didn’t like. That simple act made it much easier on the kids to go back and forth. It wasn’t me against their mom, it was the kids and I united to find her a present. The kids loved that and that strengthened our bond. Plus, their mom knew exactly who took the kids shopping and that paved the way to improve our relationship.

Some people might think this attitude is strange. Parents and their ex’s new partners aren’t supposed to get along or even discuss the kids. But, even if you think things like this are “over the top” your actions say something else. For example, you recognize how important the sibling relationship is, and though unconventional, continue to care for your bonus kids even when their dad is out of town. That’s “putting the kids first,”

Bottom line, the ideal situation would be if dad took the kids out to buy their mom a present, but if that’s not possible, it’s not surprising you’re next in line. Although buying presents for a partner’s ex may seem like you’re going above and beyond, it’s not about buying the present at all. It’s the act of shopping for the present with the kids that makes you the bigger person.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation.” . Email her at at