Single Parents’ Survival Tips

You’ve got kids. Your sweetie has kids. How can everyone get along so romance can bloom? Read on for advice.

By Bob Strauss

ack when I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was With Six You Get Egg Roll, a wholesomely unrealistic family flick in which Doris Day, a widow with three sons, marries Brian Keith, a widower with a teenage daughter. Despite the usual plot points — Keith’s daughter resents having a new mom, and Day’s oldest son can’t stand his new dad — everything is happily resolved by the closing credits, making pop culture safe for perky sitcom fare like The Brady Bunch.

As we all know, though, matters never work out quite so neatly in real life. The fact is, dating can be incredibly stressful and time-consuming for an unencumbered 16-year-old,
Tell the truth now to avoid unnecessary complications later.
much less a 40-something divorced mom or dad with a couple of toddlers or a surly teen in tow. Here are some tips for maintaining your sanity:

Stay focused on each other.
During the awkwardness of a first (or second or 17th) date, it’s natural to zero on what you have in common — so before you know it, you’ve spent your entire three-hour dinner discussing your kids’ school plays. To keep the conversation from straying you-know-where, ask your kids to please not call you on your cell phones during a specific interval — say, 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. — except in the event of a crisis, obviously (their not knowing the square root of 36 doesn’t quite qualify as an emergency...). Then, with your date, declare that time period’s conversation a kid-free zone.

Keep the little ones distracted.
When toddlers or grade-schoolers are involved, the biggest challenge of dating can be getting the kids out of your hair long enough to, well, do your hair. “I’d put my son in the bathtub while I put on my makeup, then let him watch an hour of Sesame Street,” says Lisa Cohn, coauthor (with William Merkel) of One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories and Advice for Stepfamilies. Or arrange for something special — like setting up a make-your-own ice-cream sundae activity — while you’re getting ready.

Don’t lie.
For many parents, the only thing scarier than actually going out on a date is having to tell their kids that they’re going out on a date. As tempting as it is to say you’ve been called back to work for an emergency, or you’re visiting an elderly aunt in the hospital, if your kids are as smart as you hope they are, they’ll have long since figured
“If the kids don’t get along, it doesn’t mean they won’t learn to get along.”
out why you’re getting all dressed up and putting on perfume. By telling the truth now, you avoid unnecessary complications later on if you and your beau really get serious.

Beware the “ex effect.”
If your kids put up a teary-eyed fuss when you head out the door, it’s usually for one of two reasons: separation anxiety (which is normal), or a jealous ex stirring things up (which, unfortunately, is also normal, and doesn’t lend itself to a quick fix). Ex-spouses can be a real wrench in the works (it goes both ways, of course), says Cohn, especially when it comes to logistics: “Sometimes your ex isn’t willing to change his visitation schedule just so you can go out on a date.” And if your new relationship becomes serious, that ex may well linger in the background, telling the kids dire tales about their potential new stepmom. The grown-ups involved — you and your former spouse — may want to meet with a counselor to discuss how to handle such issues in advance… rather than having arguments erupt in front of the kids. Dating again often reopens the wounds of divorce, and you want to be prepared to handle the situation in a mature and calm way.

If the kids fight, don’t overreact.
“If he’s got teenagers and you’ve got a three-year-old, you’re in trouble,” says Cohn. But if your kids and his kids are roughly the same age, and they squabble and bicker during family excursions, keep in mind that past performance doesn’t necessarily guarantee future results. “If they don’t get along,” says Cohn, “it doesn’t mean that they won’t learn to get along.” But you and your date have to take an active role in talking to the kids — in private, and on your turf, not as a group. The kids need to know that you expect certain behavior from them — in clear terms with consequences spelled out (“If you tease Timmy, we will leave before watching the movie. You know I don’t tolerate that behavior.”). And they need to hear that from you, their parent, not from you talking to them and your date’s kids, as if they were already a blended family. Honor allegiances, and they’ll honor your requests… in time.

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, the online information network owned by the New York Times.
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