When dating with children, one thing that becomes apparent after spending significant time together is that each family has their own rules and ways of addressing behavior issues. When entering into a serious relationship, it is important to start talking about how to combine parenting styles. Kids will pick up very quickly if one child is held to a different standard than another, or if consequences vary by child. Just like with every issue when dating with kids, the key is to be flexible, willing to compromise, and to communicate.
The differences in parenting styles were very apparent when my boyfriend and I started spending time together with all three of our children. His kids could drink soda, and I don’t even allow juice. My house has more structure and routine, including a firm bedtime, and he is more laid back. I am very strict about screen time while he is not. He also has one very spirited, strong willed child who is prone to temper tantrums. My son is the most sensitive of the three children where a stern look and calm but serious conversation usually rectifies poor behavior, but the same techniques that work with him do not work for my boyfriend’s kids.
Some of the differences were easy to resolve. He no longer keeps soda or junk food in the house, but I compromise on allowing soda when we go out to eat. He’s working on implementing structure and routine at his home which we learned is important for managing behavior and children’s moods. We are honestly still struggling with screen time as I feel very strongly that my son should be playing outside or engaged in active play with very little time in front of a t.v. or tablet. If one day we ever live in the same home, we are both going to have to compromise on this. For now, since we do not live together, most of our time together with the children is engaged in planned activities so this is not a big issue.
The struggle we needed help with from the parenting coach was how to control behavior. My son is active and will try to playfully karate chop the oldest while she is engrossed in an activity which leads to an argument because she is bothered. The oldest will get sucked into Minecraft and then whine and refuse to turn off the computer at dinner time. The youngest will go from smiling and happy to throwing herself on the floor and screaming at the top of her lungs. Basically, the three different personalities without the parenting knowledge to effectively guide behavior was leading to a lot of chaos.
The therapist told us to come up with five family rules. Things that fall outside of these rules we just have to let go, because not everything can be addressed and fixed at once. That said, each rule can encompass a lot of various behaviors. Our first priority was addressing behavior while in public, because one child screaming on the floor of a restaurant while another is karate chopping the third kid who then starts yelling because she doesn’t want to be bothered is not a fun experience (especially for the other restaurant patrons).
After creating your five family rules, it is important to review them regularly with the children. Prior to leaving for any activity together, including just going out to a restaurant, we are to review the five rules with the kids. The therapist explained the importance of children understanding our expectations of them. Also, prior to leaving for the activity and after reviewing the rules, we are to explain to the children that if anyone has trouble sticking to these rules, it must mean that we need to come home since we need more practice before we do fun things. Once in public, if a child breaks a family rule, you have to actually stick with the expectation you set and go home if a rule is broken. This is so hard as it ruins the fun for everyone, but it’s important for teaching children appropriate behavior.
The therapist warned us that the first few times we end up going home, the child or children will likely scream and throw a fit over having to leave. She said to be sure to stay calm and just remind the child that clearly we just aren’t ready to do the activity and need more practice. After a few times, the children will realize the parents are serious and that they will miss out on fun things if they don’t behave.
It’s also important to let the kids know that these are rules for everyone, including the parents, so the children won’t feel unfairly singled out.
The five rules we decided in therapy are:
It is very important that each parent enforce the rules with their own children. They are the one with the bond and relationship with the children, and the new partner trying to discipline the other’s kids can interfere with their newly forming relationship.
Changes in behavior definitely do not happen overnight, and the therapist reminded us that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Learning to be consistent and stay calm takes time and practice, but we have seen slow positive changes since creating our family rules.
In my next post I will pass along the therapist’s suggestions for addressing specific behavior issues with children.
By Jeanette Soltys, Esq.