Dear Carolyn: I am in a relationship with a wonderful, intelligent man. We’ve been together three years and I adore him. He wants me to join him in a new home with his two kids, ages 7 and 9. He and his ex-wife co-parent peacefully.
Here’s my issue: I have never wanted kids and I have no experience with them, and my experience with his kids has me wanting to run in the other direction. They are allowed to protest every decision the parents make and both parents take this totally seriously. At the table, both kids chew with mouths wide open, make odd noises and faces, and generally make a spectacle.
I would have been sent to my room had I behaved this way. I can’t imagine living in a household like this. Is that behavior normal for kids this age, or are they out of control? I’m afraid this issue may make or break my relationship.
– Balking by the Bay
A: You’ve flagged a serious problem if indeed the kids run their parents; that’s obnoxious with tweens, ugly to dangerous with teens and rarely ends well.
But it would also be easy, and a mistake, to slap on the “symptom of real problems” label every time these kids blow a raspberry.
The behaviors you question could partly reflect a cultural shift in child-rearing away from an authoritarian, do-as-I-say model – which many are starting to believe produces mostly two dubious outcomes: stuntedness or rebellion.
The spectacle could also be a sign of a timeless truth, that there isn’t just one path to a responsible adulthood. Your “disrespectful nuthouse” could be someone else’s “offbeat, nurturing home.”
Plus there’s the fact that ages 7 and 9 are, er, exuberant times for a kid. If they’re not taking public delight in their own intestinal gas, then, congratulations, they’re near the top of the evolutionary chart.
Kids need limits – that’s not open for debate. But how firm those limits need to be depends so much on the temperaments of the kids, as well as the parents’ skill, consistency and warmth at articulating their expectations.
What you do know is you: kid-skeptical, unimpressed, balking. And, of course, smitten with the “wonderful, intelligent man” whose choices shaped the family dynamic you describe.
Add up everything so far, then add the fact that prospective stepfamilies have more than enough challenges already, then factor in that criticizing a person’s children is generally a nonstarter, and here’s what I suggest: Get out ...
... Or get help. Specifically, request “training wheels” in the form of a parenting class you take together (find one through the kids’ pediatrician). Just as premarital counseling offers a framework for discussing difficult aspects of marriage, parent workshops can be a safe place to explore how, together, you’d raise these kids.