I’m getting into a serious relationship with a single mom whose 14-year-old daughter is generally great, but she dresses like a hooker and occasionally sneaks out. When I make tentative suggestions to my girlfriend about discipline, she says I’m criticizing her parenting. I know the kid isn’t mine, but if we become a family and she falls off the rails, I’ll be helping pick up the emotional and financial pieces. How can I influence things early enough to make a difference without overstepping my boundaries?
He Said: The best way to help your girlfriend raise her teen is by acting like a committed, supportive, and trustworthy partner. You’re right: It’s tough knowing you may someday share responsibility for consequences without the authority to help prevent them. But your girlfriend is probably concerned enough about her daughter to begin with, and any criticisms you make will only add fuel to the fire. You need to first show your commitment to the two of them before your girlfriend will see you as an insider and consider taking your advice. It may not feel fair, but since you have no responsibilities yet and can punch out if things don’t go well, you’ve got the stronger hand and need to meet your girlfriend more than halfway.
Your support for the daughter should be to listen, enjoy, empathize, and give an opinion only if asked. If you want to guide her behavior, lead by example. Right now, you’re regularly boffing her mother without a license. What’s an impressionable young girl to make of that?
She Said: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but most 14-year-old girls dress like hookers these days. I wouldn’t worry too much about that, especially if she’s otherwise great. The sneaking out is a little worrisome, but parenting, unfortunately, is one of those sacred cows that mere bystanders—those who do not share the child’s DNA, even if close friends or partners—are not allowed to comment upon. At least not until you put a ring on it.
As relationships develop, we get to see how our partners and potential spouses handle their health, their careers, their money, their social lives. To that end, if your girlfriend’s parenting style raises any big red flags in you, then by all means, heed that. What this sounds like to me, though, is a pretty great mom and her pretty great kid entering the pretty rough and unpredictable teenage years. This is one of those rolls of the dice. The kid might become secretary of state, or she might end up slinging pints at the 500 Club for a living whilst showing off her Japanese dragon tattoo. Either way, everyone will probably survive, and you need to keep a lid on it unless, or until, you’re her official stepfather.
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*Published in the April 2011 issue of 7x7. Subscribe to 7x7 magazine here.