Q: My husband resents that I expect his son who visits on breaks and in the summer to pull his weight around the house just like my kids, who live here full time. I recently asked my stepson, age 14, to wash his towels after he showers. He throws them in the corner of the bathroom and they sit there for days. His father overheard me and reprimanded me for asking his son to do chores while he’s visiting us. This doesn’t sound right to me. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: Good ex-etiquette starts with putting the kids first (Ex-Etiquette for Parent Rule No. 1), and I bet your husband thinks he’s doing just that by letting his son slide when he visits. Non-custodial parents are often afraid if things are too tough around their house, their children won’t want to return. So, to ensure his son looks forward to the visits, Dad turns into Disneyland Dad each time his son appears. In dad’s defense, his behavior is fear-based – he can’t live with his son full time and wants him to love him and look forward to seeing him, but what he is doing creates other problems:
First, his relationship with his son can stay fixed in the “visiting” mode and not progress to the father/son relationship I am sure he wants. Dad may benefit from some counseling to help him deal with the insecurities associated with being a non-custodial parent.
Second, the other children in the home may see it as favoritism, and that could promote resentment between family members. This is when stepfamilies break into factions – your side and your kids against my side and my kids – and, if that is the case in your home, be prepared. It’s rare once family members take sides that the stepfamily stays intact. More often, fearing their kids will be slighted, parents run defense for their biological offspring, and this undermines any previous perception of family unity.
Third, feeling like family is a state of mind. When you are constantly told someone is “just visiting,” everyone – including your stepson – may feel he’s not a “real” family member. If your husband wants his son to be regarded as family, he has to treat him like family. Family members do chores.
Best thing you can do at this point is to present things as a united front, establish house rules and let everyone know what you and dad expect. Remember to let the kids weigh in. Teens are more likely to respond positively if they are in on establishing bonusfamily policies. Remind Dad that you are not the enemy and you are both in this together. Ex-etiquette Rule No. 5, “Don’t be spiteful,” Rule No. 6, “Don’t hold grudges, and No. 7, “Use empathy when problem solving” will all be helpful when you start having those all-important conversations about what you will do to promote bonusfamily unity. Do it sooner than later!
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website www.exetiquette.com at firstname.lastname@example.org.