How do I best get acquainted with my boyfriend's kids?
January 14, 2007 1:08 PM   Subscribe

How do I best get acquainted, and develop a good relationship, with my boyfriends' kids?

The initial question glosses over the important particulars, as initial questions often do. Oh gods of brevity, I meekly request your grace:

We've been dating long-distance on-and-off since June, but we've known each other for over two years, through work (He was, um, my boss at my college work-study job). Because of the awkward work situation, we didn't start dating (or even confess our feelings) till I'd almost graduated and wasn't working with him anymore.

Unfortunately, I was already pretty committed to moving halfway across the country at that point, and neither of us felt comfortable with me giving that up for a nascent relationship. So I went, and after some minor bumbling at first, we're still together and it's lovely and the more I learn about him, the luckier I feel.

But we know the long-distance thing won't work long-term, so I'm moving back to the area in a few weeks. I want to make sure I'm going about this as wisely and responsibly as possible.

Here's the practical breakdown: I'm 23, and this is my first serious relationship. He's 33 and divorced, with primary custody of his two children (9 and 7). He has a reasonably civil relationship with his ex-wife, who gets the kids every other weekend. He's a good dad who loves his children to death.

Our initial plan was to have me rent a small apartment in walking distance of his house, but the available ones are a bit out of my price range. Plan B is to have me look for a cheaper apartment farther away and spend the difference on buying a car, which I'll need at some point anyway. We toyed with the idea of me moving into his house but decided that'd be really hard on the kids.

I'll be moving away in six or seven months to start school, so we'll have to reassess the situation then. If we decide we're in this for the long haul, they might come with me. But we want to be absolutely sure before uprooting them like that (and risking things getting ugly with their mom - he's avoided a court battle till now because of how it might affect the kids, even though she's never paid child support.).

Basically, we're trying to tread carefully over these practical quagmires, and to that end, I'd like the input of the hive mind. From what he's told me, his kids seem lovely - brilliant, funny, mature, and well-adjusted. I never thought I'd end up with a guy who has children, but I've gotten used to, even excited about, the idea, and it's important to me that this be a positive experience for them. For what it's worth, I'm his second serious girlfriend since the divorce (which was 4-5 years ago), and they seemed to accept her a lot more readily than he worried they would.

So: how should I introduce myself into their lives? I guess I'm just looking for general advice, particularly from children of divorced parents, and those who have dated divorced parents. (As a side question, would it be a very bad idea to move in with them before we're engaged? I think I know the answer to that one, but I'll ask just in case I'm being overly cautious.) I'll possibly get a sock-puppet account to answer any questions, or e-mail jessamyn.

(oh, and we'd both want more children of our own, but since I'm going back to school, it wouldn't happen for several years.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Having been in a similar situation, here are some general guidelines that we found useful:

1. His kids come first. Always. If he has to cancel a date to pick up the kids, you have to be ok with that. For me, I thought it was awesome that my SO loved being a dad and I respected him for that. Sure, it was inconvenient at times but I figured they were just kids dealing with their parents being divorced. That's not easy for a kid so I never complained if plans changed. Their life is so much harder than me being annoyed that I couldn't go to dinner with my SO.

2. Never, never, never bad-mouth the ex either to your SO or to his kids. Remain neutral. If he needs to vent about her let him do that with no input from you. In your case it sounds like relations are pretty civil but you never know if that will change.

3. Remember that kids often have a secret hope that their parents will get back together. They might be mature and well-adjusted around their Dad but it's possible that they will resent you. Be prepared for that. Also be aware that their time with their father is precious to them. They might regard you as a nuisance. The best way around this is to limit how much time you spend with them. Leave early, keep them wanting more but don't try too hard. Kids can sense desperation. You can try activities that they will enjoy like playing games, baking cookies, drawing. You want to get to the point where you develop your own relationship with them.

4. You'll have to assess the situation but I don't know if spending the night when they're there is a good idea. It could be confusing and strange to them.

Good luck!
posted by Soda-Da at 2:16 PM on January 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

A few random thoughts, based on observations and experience: I'd try to be friends with the children rather than a surrogate mother, if that distinction makes sense. After all, they have a mother; and also (as you point out) your arrival on the scene has the potential to rile her. As part and parcel of the friend-not-mother role, I would resist, at least to begin with, any urge to overtly discipline them; content yourself with a "well, I don't know what your dad would say about that" or similar deprecation in situations where you may be tempted to tell them off. And very important: don't freak out when you see how much and easily your boyfriend loves his kids: he may love them in a different way than you, and it isn't a competition. You may feel, to begin with, a little on the outside of his family circle once you associate with them closely and regularly; don't worry, with patience love and humility you will gradually move to the center.
posted by londongeezer at 2:24 PM on January 14, 2007

You didn't say if / how much they know about you (do they even know you exist?).

Assuming they have never met you, I'd suggest doing things together as "friends" a lot before taking over their house. Don't introduce yourself as "hello, I will be part of your family".

You'll see if they take to you and things can go from there. If they do like you you can just be around more and more without making a big fuss about it. That's how it happened in my family and I never really questioned it (though I admit I was somewhat younger).

If they're really hostile then you'll have a problem, but from what you describe that's unlikely (it may happen of course - but what's the point of expecting the worst).

[on preview] about the "staying over" thing - yeah, don't do it at first or it may weird them out. But once they know you are now part of their dad's life I don't think it would be that much of an issue. But YMMV.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 2:29 PM on January 14, 2007

Here's a "rule of thumb" to mull over . If you are coming into a child's life as a step parent, you can count on it taking as long as the kid is old for him/her to start viewing you as a parent (if you're dealing with a 7 year old, he/she will be 14 before you are really viewed as a parent). Factor this in as you consider any other advice you might get here.

Best of luck...
posted by HuronBob at 2:37 PM on January 14, 2007

My parents divorced when I was 3, and my father remarried when I was 5 (my mother remarried multiple times and had numerous boyfriends in between, but I'll spare you the gory details)...

Hopefully your boyfriend will have prepared the children for your first meeting well in advance (being honest with them and allowing them to ask questions)... When you first meet them, think of it as if you were meeting a new friend (do not attempt to make them think of you as a mother figure, or an authority figure... That comes later, when and if you do marry their father)... Show that you are interested in them by asking questions about their school, their friends, their hobbies, their favorite TV shows, etc., and allow them to ask questions of you... But make sure it's conversational in tone, not a "let's interrogate each other" kind of thing...

The most important piece of advice I can give you is: DO NOT be overly affectionate with their father in front of them... You may be madly in love, but nothing will alienate a kid more than having to witness a make-out session in the communal areas of the house... Keep the touchy-feely stuff in the bedroom...

Another biggie: Don't begrudge him his personal time with the kids... Don't be one of those girlfriends who thinks that every waking moment needs to be spent with all of you together... The kids need personal time with their dad, whether it be just a night at home or going out to eat, going to a movie, or even just mundane things like going to the gas station or the grocery store... They need moments where he only belongs to them for awhile... If you insist upon being included in every activity, the kids will resent you... They shouldn't ever have to feel that they are competing with you for their dad's attention (nor should you feel that way)...

A little nit to pick: I noticed in your last sentence that you said you both eventually want kids of "your own"... I know you probably said that without even thinking of how it sounded, but that's an emotional hot button for kids to hear... If you marry, the stepkids are "your own" too (especially since he has primary custody)... If you and your boyfriend do have more children, just think of it as "we are having more children" instead of differentiating between "his" and "our own"...

You're already off to a good start by wanting to have a good relationship with the kids (and by seeking advice on how to make it happen)... You sound like a level-headed and caring person, and I'm sure you'll make it work... Don't expect it to be a shiny happy Hallmark moment when you meet the kids, but don't expect a nightmare either... It will be somewhere in between... You'll probably all feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but as long as you are warm and friendly with the kids (and respectful of their emotions) you'll be fine.
posted by amyms at 2:38 PM on January 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just. dont. be. pushy.

As for sleeping over? I can safely say that it never bothered me. Then again, I was very aware of the 'facts of life' at a very young age [by some people's standards].

Chances are that if his kids are level-headed and well-raised, you won't have too many problems. At very worst they'll probably only resent you in secret.

Luckily you've caught them at a decent age to overcome any major problems early. It's teenagers you really have to worry about.

Try standing up for the kids in an appropriate situation (that won't piss off the Boyfriend). My mom's SOs always got extra points for reasoning with her in my favour.

I hope that makes sense!
posted by sunshinesky at 3:36 PM on January 14, 2007

i don't see why it would be a problem for you to sleep over; surely the kids are aware of the concept of sleeping at friends' houses, so even if they don't understand anything more than that they should be able to accept it. unless they follow a religion that opposes premarital sex, in which case it might be confusing (or become so when they figure it out).

i think you'll probably have a head start on being friends with them because as a rather young adult they are probably more likely to think you are cool.
posted by lgyre at 4:00 PM on January 14, 2007

People have given pretty good advice so far. I'd like to emphasize not trying to be their mom. It sounds like they have a perfectly good mother already. Also, don't try to buy their love. My stepmom tried this and I caught on immediately and found it incredibly patronizing.
If you do decide to marry this guy, make sure the kids have known you for more than a year, and that you're already comfortable with the idea of living with them, and living with them ALL THE TIME. If you're already considering moving in with this guy, I don't think you realize what it means to live with kids. Even at 7 and 9, kids are loud, messy, picky eaters, who require babysitters and can't watch grown-up movies.
My stepmom was totally unprepared to move in with kids and it showed, and I still resent her for it.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 4:05 PM on January 14, 2007

You need to be pretty darn sure he's a keeper (and vice versa) before you even MEET these kids.

You are only going to be in proximity for six or seven months. And,this is your first serious relationship. I think the odds of this lasting are not quite as good as you think, considering these two bits of info.

Go slow.
posted by konolia at 4:22 PM on January 14, 2007

I agree with Konolia. You've barely dated this guy. Go slow and date him first. When you're serious and sure, then start to consider how to integrate into the family. This is a challenging thing, navigating a relationship with a man who comes with offspring, at the best of times. But you seem to be in a tumultuous time of your life yourself -- moving back and forth across the country, starting school. And you are *young*. Take this slow!! For the kids' sake if not your own.

Also, trust me, if this guy is planning to move the kids away from their mother, and you are are still involved with him, your age is going to come up, as is your geographic instability in life. If it's anything like the custody situation after my parents' divorce, it's going to be a frigging mess is what it's going to be.

I'm sorry to seem so negative, but I went 15 years without my father because of his wife and everything that went down after the divorce. I just this year started to rekindle a relationship with him and some on that side of my family. (Fortunately he recently left her.) It is a delicate situation and you should actually date this guy a while before you move on into the kids' space.
posted by loiseau at 5:22 PM on January 14, 2007

You need to be pretty darn sure he's a keeper (and vice versa) before you even MEET these kids.
I don't know about that. The kids will wind up realizing that there dad is up to something, and they will be really hurt if they think their dad has been 'hiding' the fact that he's dating you. You don't necessarily need to get involved with them right away, but they should at the very least know that you exist and have met you.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 6:00 PM on January 14, 2007

I was 10 and my sister was 12 when my father entered his first serious relationship since my mother (it's 7 years later now and they're still together, but it's been a tough road).

Don't try to hide the relationship from them. I got told that my dad was dating again by him asking me to come to dinner with him and a friend. I wasn't terribly happy when I found out that the 'friend' had been his girlfriend for almost a year.

I think a lot depends on how long ago he and his wife divorced. My parents seperated when I was very young and so I didn't really remember them living together, consequently I wasn't cherishing any hopes of a reunion. Their situation may be different.

Whether or not they lived with their mother for a significant portion of their life, they have still lived probably their most formative years under the guidance of people that aren't you. This means that they may easily possess traits, values, beliefs that will conflict with yours. Don't try to force them to change. My parents were introverts, I was a quiet kid who spent a lot of time reading. My dad's girlfriend came along and she was a complete extrovert who tried to force me to talk to all her friends and couldn't understand why I balked.

I'm not proud of the fact that I gave my dad's new girlfriend quite a terrible time, my sister was even worse as she was entering her teens about the time she found out about the relationship, and didn't take it very well. I spent a lot of time thinking back over why it took us so long to adjust (we've got an excellent relationship with her now) and these are I think the main reasons:

- not finding out about the relationship and basically being lied to all the time, told that she was just a friend.
- she went straight into trying to discipline us, and both of us resented a new authority figure whom we didn't think had any rights to control us (the old "you're not my mother, you can't tell me what to do" thing). refer disciplinary issues to Dad until the new family unit is comfortable.
- that we both felt that our dad was choosing her over us all the time. when he started dating her, she started making all the decisions about what we would do that day, if my sister and I wanted to do something else, her will prevailed. i often accidentally did things that offended her (very different style of upbringing to how she would've done it) and she would then complain to my father, who would then yell at me. i have (not) fond memories of him coming to my school when I was 11 and yelling at me in the playground that he wasn't going to let me screw up his relationship. so then i felt that she was worth more to him than me. you might want to tell your boyfriend to make sure the kids know they come first, and that he loves them, etc etc., because it might help them not resent you.
- all of a sudden she was there all the time, and we didn't get any time with just dad and us, and that was horrible, because we loved our dad and sometimes you just want a little time without the new partner. so nthing let them have time alone together, too. you can do stuff with them, just not every single time.

basically, be patient. it probably won't be an automatic, you're getting welcomed straight into the family and they love you forever kind of situation. but they will get used to it, and they will come around eventually. just don't come on too strong, and you'll be fine.
posted by Persimmon at 11:07 PM on January 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

People above have made a bunch of the points I was planning to make, namely:

- It's not your job to discipline the kids, particularly at the beginning. That's their father's job. They may behave in ways you find annoying, but they've been raised under the rules of their father & mother their whole lives. Let your boyfriend deal with discipline and institute any rule-changing, unless you want to become the villain. This is the case even if the kids terminally annoy you - and they may, since your only knowledge of them comes from the descriptions of their doting father.

- Don't involve yourself in all family activities. Even if the kids like you, you're still someone new, an intruder. They'll resent you if all of their time alone with their dad is taken away, or if too many little family traditions are changed. Giving them & their dad some time alone will make everyone happier.

- Never badmouth the kids' mother. Yeah, your boyfriend and his kids may complain about you in front of her, but you need to be aware that you're only getting one side of the story - one that's quite possibly a little unrealistically negative.

- Realize that the kids may never love you [as a parent, a friend, or anything else, for that matter.] Love doesn't conquer all, and that's particularly the case in stepfamilies, even if everyone involved goes into it trying to do their best. Certainly, there's no guarantee that the kids'll "come around eventually" or that when they're twice the age they are now, they'll consider you a parent. My siblings & I [all way past that point] all dislike our stepmother and do not consider her a parent at all. That's the worst-case scenario, of course, but it's one that happens often-enough, even when all the people involved are trying to make things work. Be realistic and cautious about this whole thing.

- Would it be a bad idea to move in with them before you're engaged? Not necessarily. Would it be a bad idea to move in with them quickly? Quite possibly, though not because the kids might be shocked by you living with your boyfriend. Rather, blending families is not easy and all-too-frequently ends badly. If you go very slowly, everyone [kids and ex-wife included] will have a better idea of what they're getting into, and whether it's working. Furthermore, you're already in a somewhat challenging situation - this is your first relationship. Make sure the kids feel comfortable with you before you start sleeping over.

- Six months is a very short time to make big decisions like uprooting the family. Even if the kids get along with you decently, something like that - moving them away from their mother & their home, and possibly getting the family embroiled in a legal battle - may be enough to make them dislike you, since you'll be the cause of all of that unpleasant change. Even if you're absolutely sure that your boyfriend's the one, consider doing the long-distance thing again for a while or spend a lot of effort looking at nearby programs. You're asking quite a lot from kids you don't even know yet. Again, be realistic, and remember that to make this blended-family thing work, you'll have to make sacrifices that wouldn't be necessary if your boyfriend weren't a father.
posted by ubersturm at 12:13 PM on January 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

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