Question: I have been going out with a woman with a 6-year-old son for quite a while and am on the point of moving in full time. I get on well with her son and most things are fine. But, I get so mad when she says ‘No’ to him, tells him ‘no means no’, offers alternative suggestions, and then when he whines for a while (5-10 minutes), she says ‘ok then.’ I don’t see why she doesn’t either say yes in the first place, or sit it out. To me, this is getting a reward for whining. I find this really difficult, I try to butt out but I get so mad I don’t know how to deal with it and sometimes wind up yelling at the child the next time he even starts to whine. How do other couples (step and ordinary) deal with this?
Answer: Most couples, at one time or another, find themselves in situations where they each handle a parenting situation in a different way and drive their partner crazy. But with a few guidelines, you can avoid those child-centered family conflicts. Co-parenting, whether in “ordinary” families, “step” families, extended families or with caregivers, requires respect for one another’s territories.
My first co-parenting guideline is: Whoever speaks first, rules. That means that whichever parent begins the discipline, right or wrong, has complete domain to carry it through to completion. This enables the parent to maintain authority in the situation and to experience the effectiveness of his or her choices. Even when the “ruling” parent is making less than effective parenting choices, a second parental voice won’t improve effectiveness. It only undermines that parent in the eyes of the child.
A second co-parenting guideline is: Talk about parenting strategies in neutral settings. My favorite example of this was shared with me by a couple who was struggling with weekly business travel and mismatched schedules. Each week the couple sat down after the children were asleep with a couple of beers for a family ‘briefing”. Now, I don’t usually advocate drinking to improve parenting but, in this case, it set the tone for relaxed discussions and even a little laughter. Parent problem solving needs to occur in nonthreatening settings where parents can examine mistakes and past choices.
Criticism should be as gentle and constructive as possible because parenting is such an emotional task. This would be the time to ask your partner her perception of the whining situation. If she is comfortable with the behavior, you probably need to stand by until she recognizes the problem. This does not mean you need to tolerate whining in her son’s communication with you.
The third co-parenting guideline is: Children are capable of following different rules in different settings without compromising the value of the rule. While consistency is a great ideal, it is not realistic that all adults will think or respond exactly the same way. Children are incredibly adaptive at understanding and following different expectations in different settings. It is important to be consistent within those settings and within ourselves. It is equally important that children do not “work” the adults against one another (that takes us right back to guideline #1). In your household, I would calmly explain to your partner’s son that you cannot discuss anything while he is whining and to let you know when he is ready to speak appropriately. Stay calm (by using some preplanned stress management technique – counting, breath work, a time-out for you) and in no time at all, you will make an enormous difference in your stepson’s behavior. Your partner may also like the results so well that she may consider changing her behavior too.
Congratulations on your growing family and on your interest in being an involved partner! I’m sure you have many happy adventures ahead of you.
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.