So after a few promising dates, your newly divorced potential girlfriend has finally invited you to her apartment for a home-cooked meal and, more importantly, the chance to meet her adorable three-year-old son. The trouble is, no sooner have you plunked yourself down on the sofa than the kid chomps you on the right calf and refuses to let go. Do you a) shake him violently off your leg as if he were an Amazonian tree snake; b) twist your grimace of pain into a smile and pretend that nothing’s wrong; or c) politely inform his mom that you hate to be a bother, but could she please remove Little Nicky before you black out?
If you answered c), give yourself a gold star: You’ve learned to avoid the pitfall of disciplining your date’s kids. The simple fact is, whether you’re dealing with a disruptive toddler or a back-sassing teen, enforcement of the rules is always, always
the prerogative of the blood parent, according to Dr. Susan S. Bartell, therapist and author of Stepliving for Teens
and Mommy or Daddy: Whose Side Am I On?
Here are Dr. Bartell’s tips for stress-free (assistant) parenting while you’re dating a single mom or dad:
Talk things over.
Ideally, Bartell says, you shouldn’t even be meeting your date’s kids until “you’re as confident as can be that this is going to be a long-term relationship.” In any case, it’s important to have an explicit discussion beforehand about how you’re expected to behave and what you’re allowed to do and say. Go ahead and ask about household rules and parenting styles — who knows? You may be dating someone who doesn’t want you encouraging her kindergartener’s love of poop-related jokes. And, “If you’re the parent,” Bartell says, “don’t say things like, ‘I’m running off to the store for a few minutes — if the kids fight, you can send them to their room.’” It’s not OK to ask a date to step in and dole out the discipline on your behalf. (And, honestly, how many non-parents would even know the ins and outs of meting out a timeout?)
Be friends first.
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Many guys operate under the mistaken belief that, if they take a hard line with their girlfriends’ kids, they’ll be admired by all concerned for their polite-but-firm fathering skills. Wrong strategy, says Bartell. “It’s not appropriate to discipline your date’s kids until you’ve been married for about a year,” she says. “You want to become the child’s friend, so he doesn’t feel like you’re trying to take the place of his biological father.” Flout this rule, Bartell says, and the kid may grudgingly do as you command — then find some insidious way to sabotage your relationship.
Resist the temptation to play mommy.
Perhaps because they’ve seen The Sound of Music
two or three thousand times, many single women melt at the sight of toddlers — then, before you know it, they’re scooting them off to bed a full hour earlier than their dad allows because “little angels need their sleep.” “Women are more susceptible to jumping into the role of ‘mommy’ than men are of jumping into the role of ‘daddy,’” Bartell says, usually with calamitous results.
Take the child’s side.
This isn’t to say that you should ever override your girlfriend’s house rules — only that you should give the child the benefit of the doubt, and maybe, just maybe, sneak her a little extra ice cream after dinner. Sure, this advice seems counterintuitive, but consider it this way: First, won’t it spoil your boyfriend’s eight-year-old daughter, and second, won’t it aggravate your boyfriend? Not necessarily, says Bartell. “Discipline happens organically,” she says. “As the kids get to know you and trust you, they’ll open themselves up naturally and want you to parent them.”
Bob Strauss is a freelance writer and children’s book author who lives in New York City. He’s also written the Dinosaur guide on About.com, the online information network owned by the
New York Times.