Tell MeAbout It

Hax: Don't like his kids? Better not move in

April 9, 2013 

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. These kids behave abominably. They are allowed to protest every decision the parents make (including choice of dinner and what cars the parents drive) and both parents take this totally seriously. At the table, both kids smash their faces into their food, 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 these kids out of control? I’m afraid this issue may make or break my relationship. – Balking by the Bay

Odd noises and faces! I’ll nod sympathetically and try not to smirk.

I don’t mean to ridicule your concerns. You’ve flagged a serious problem if indeed the kids run their parents; that’s obnoxious with tweens, ugly-to-dangerous with teens, and it 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 childrearing 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, of course – 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.

All of which is to say, this family could be misery or magic depending on the way a few key variables break.

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.

The issue may make or break your relationship, I agree – but either outcome beats the status quo of leaving your aversion unaddressed.

Send email to Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com.

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