8 rules for dating my parent
By Nina Malkin
If you’re interested in dating someone who’s DWC (that’s divorced with children), you ought to consider how the kids will feel about your entry into their parents’ life—and theirs. So we went to the source, real kids* (courtesy of Mark Hughes, a life coach for parents and teens in San Diego County who also offers seminars at the Retreat Center for Families in Portland, OR). Read on—and behave accordingly…
1. “Don’t be a goober!” So says Mark, 12, who defines gooberosity as acting goofy, laughing too much in a fake way, and basically showing off. “If you’re trying so hard to be liked, you’ll come across as an idiot,” says Moira, 17. “Kids know when you’re being someone you’re not. Relax and be yourself.” Interestingly, Moira says she finds it more important to respect rather than like the person her parent is dating.
Heh, "goober." Yeah, acting fake is bad. If you're naturally goofy, that's awesome, but if you act like Will Farrell, kids will think you're a moron. And so will adults.
2. “Don’t kiss and do stuff in front of me.” This direct quote from Cameron, 15, is resoundingly echoed by all the kids who wrote these rules. Parent-and-date PDA beyond a quick peck is inappropriate and kind of gross, they say. “When they do more than that it’s weird for me,” says Alex, 10. “They can do it on their own time—I don’t want to see it on my couch,” says Beth, 18. Treat your date more like a friend around the kids.
I think PDA beyond holding hands, mild cuddling, or a brief hug or peck is kind of disturbing anyway. I mean, it even bugs me when my friends who are dating get all mushy in my presence. Kids get REALLY squicked out by that stuff. Seriously. Get a room.
3. “Give me my space.” These words, from 15-year-old Steve, are echoed by many children of divorce. “The kids are still trying to get through a challenging time and they don’t need pressure from the new guy or woman,” Steve explains. “Make an effort, but leave it to the kid to determine how deep the relationship [between child and parent’s new beau] goes.” As Steve sagely points out, children may be wary of liking you too much, since if you and their parent break up, you vanish from their lives. “Develop the relationship with the kid only after you know the relationship with the parent is going somewhere,” Steve says.
Everybody needs space, even kids. Why do you think they get all squirmy and cranky when grandma goes overboard with the hugs'n'kisses or Aunt Ethel comes at them with her pincers of cheek death? You probably wouldn't try to jump into, say, the lives of your significant other's parents. Same goes for kids.
4. “Don’t be indifferent,” says Mark. Ultimately, Alex would prefer “a person that doesn’t just like my mom and turns to kids and says ‘yuck.’” Yes, it’s a challenge, considering some above-mentioned rules, but aim for a balance between crowding kids and pretending they’re not in the picture. Find a way to interact and communicate. Alex says a little gaming goes a long way. “Most kids want you to know how to play video games—that’s the key to getting into a kid. You don’t want [the date] coming over and just watching TV.”
Kids are people. They're not like little boogar-balls trailing on for the ride. They're not like pets. They're PEOPLE. Also, video games rule. That's all I have to say.
5. “Know that you’re not the parent,” says Moira, expressing a popular sentiment, particularly with teens looking for more independence. “My mom’s boyfriend will try to parent me, like, ‘Why aren’t you helping your mom?’” says 17-year-old Zach. “Show the love but don’t try to replace the real parents.” Perhaps you’re a parent yourself, but the rules of your household may not apply to those of the person you’re dating. If you’re privy to discussions about such issues as curfew or clothing choices, butt out. If the person you’re dating tries to pull you in, be neutral. As the relationship develops, you may choose to be diplomatically involved but don’t lay down the law. “You can make suggestions, but don’t tell us what we have to do,” Cameron says.
I just think it's silly when someone who isn't an older relative, babysitter, or an educational authority figure (or something along those lines) tries to tell a kid what to do. Unless they're in your house under your rules, you're not the boss of other people's children.
6. “Share.” A beautiful word, share, and by it Mark means be open about your life, your experiences, your background, and your feelings. That way, “I can learn more about who he is and where he’s coming from, to connect with him,” Mark says. The more you share (without coming off like a blowhard), the more secure the child may feel. “It’s like doing research, so I don’t feel like he’s some guy right off the street,” Mark says. The main caveat? Don’t complain—these are kids, not life coaches. “We shouldn’t have to deal with their adult problems,” says Moira.
So, little Jimmy, I've been thinking about my stock options and diversifying my portfolio. Do you think I should refinance my mortgage? So I went to my urologist last week for my prostate exam, and I'm all clear, but I've got this rash that just won't... hey! Where are you going?
7. “Be respectful,” says Mark, though employing courtesy and kindness ought to be a no-brainer. “Treat me the way you want to be treated.” Listen when the kids speak. Don’t tease. Offer encouragement and sincere praise, not false flattery. You’ve got to love how Cameron puts it: “Act like we’re the host, [and you are] an exchange student.” Kids are keenly sensitive to matters of respect, and when they feel they’re being dissed, you’ll know it. “When they put me down or get in my face,” says Mark, “I retaliate by avoiding them or being difficult.”
Yes, yes, YES. I was in a workshop about writing for kids and teens a few years ago, and we had a discussion about this (in terms of writing, anyway). Kids know when you're talking down to them or trying (and failing) to approach them at their level. They don't appreciate it. If they interpret your behavior as condescending or fake, they'll give you a hard time. Give them the same respect you would give someone your own age, and I guarantee they will respect you more for it.
8. “Give it time,” says Moira, who asks that potential dates see the situation for what it is. “Acknowledge that kids really don’t want to see their parents with someone else. The more you force it, the more they’re going to run away.” Kids can feel serious pressure from a parent to like a new person; avoid intensifying that with a less-is-more approach. “Gradually get to know the family and then go out and do things together as group,” suggests Zach. Makes sense. It’s never wise to rush any relationship. Out of the mouths of babes, huh?
Most things are best in moderation. I mean, your parents probably wouldn't like it if you swamped them with your significant other either. And most kids need to take time to bond with any new adult anyway.
*names have been changed to protect privacy