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Sharing Authority for Discipline—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My children have many adults in their lives. They have me and their dad (we’re divorced), some local grandparents, teachers, a scout leader, a soccer coach, a bus driver, you get the picture.

My ex and I have both started seeing other people, and I now have a regular guy who has been with the kids a couple of times. It’s a bit awkward if one of the kids needs to be reminded to do a chore or to use their manners. Last night at dinner I was encouraging the seven-year-old to eat her vegetables before we could discuss dessert and my “friend” sternly repeated what I just said to my daughter. He doesn’t have any kids of his own and I don’t think he recognized that he overstepped his authority as evidenced by my daughter’s stunned reaction.
At what point has he earned the right to tell her what to do?

Just Wondering

Dear J.W.,

Not just yet. The other adults you mentioned beyond parents and grandparents – teachers, etc. are legally responsible for the supervision and control of the children in their care. It’s their job to tell children what to do. Close relatives, especially those who often have supervisory duties of the children in the absence of either parent, have earned the ability to exercise authority through demonstrating their steadfast love, concern, and enjoyment of these children. Other adults, such as the parents of the children’s friends, could exert authority, respectfully of course, if your child is in their care in your absence. They should treat your child as a guest in their home, albeit a guest in need of age-related supervision and guidance. A tactful encouragement to eat vegetables before dessert, when at the friend’s home for dinner, would be in order.

But Mom’s steady boyfriend is another story.

The child whose parents once were but are no longer together often sees a new romantic partner as a rival for the position of the other parent – a position that isn’t open. She resists taking advice or direction from someone who has yet to sufficiently demonstrate that he has her or her family’s best interests at heart.

Baby Steps
Often a child will steel herself against warming up to her parent’s new love interest thinking it’s a betrayal of her other parent. A child does not appreciate that her Mom might desire a romantic partner, particularly one who is not her other parent. A child of divorce is likely to hold on to the fantasy of seeing the relationship that created her put back together. Although that rarely happens.

Think of a role that any of your adult acquaintances might play with one or more of your children. If they are to have a relationship, there must be some appeal. You might plan an outing related to work experience or a hobby that your boyfriend has. Let him share his expertise / passion while the children get to have new and interesting experiences. Someone who works for the state or National Park Service could gain points with your children with his knowledge of and access to amazing places for outdoor adventures. Or let’s say he is involved in community theater and invites you and the children to a show. He is an “expert” guide for the tour of the costume room and props fabrication workshop before or after the performance. A reasonably competent chef, gardener, or mechanic might likewise win over a youngster by spending some time together doing the things he does well.

As the obvious “authority” in these scenarios, your boyfriend can acceptably guide a child’s behavior in the role of a friend of Mom’s.

Not The Parent
If your relationship with this steady guy is to continue and perhaps step up to a marriage, it is important to remember that the children already have two parents. Karen Buscemi, author of I Do, Part Two: How to Survive Divorce, Co-Parent Your Kids and Blend Your Families Without Losing Your Mind, makes a clear distinction between a parent and a step-parent when it comes to discipline. She recommends that “parents take the main role; steps (don’t) execute punishments.”

Considering the complex structure of a family with two parents and at least one stepparent, it is worth connecting to the wisdom and resources of the National Stepfamilies Resource Center . Learn how others have learned to intersect all the pieces of a stepfamily. A parent’s first priority is her children until they reach adulthood. The two exes are still a team for parenting which means any authority granted to a stepparent must be with the approval of your ex-husband. Reduce friction with the ex by keeping him in the loop as far as significant changes in your life – especially a serious relationship. As partners in parenting, you and the ex should talk regularly about the children’s daily lives and general behaviors. Best for you to be upfront if the new man in your life had to handle a child’s behavior. Trust is key in any partnership. Otherwise children might get drawn into “reporting” on how they’ve been treated at one house or the other.

Children add special challenges to dating. A new marriage or long-term relationship must be good for you, but it can’t be bad for the children.

Even if marriage isn’t in the cards, a long-term relationship can be a nice asset for your children.

1. They get an adult friend with interesting interests to add to their life experiences and who enjoys doing so. (Hint – these are fun experiences that naturally produce great behavior!)
2. (Hopefully!) the children get to see how conflict is resolved in a healthy relationship between two adults. This can be a model for their future.
3. If Mom has someone in her life who makes her happy, her children get a happier Mom. That’s always a good thing.

A chat with a parenting counselor can further help you and your steady guy set clear boundaries over who says what, and when, to the children.

Dr. Debbie

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.

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