When my older kids were five and eight, my new partner moved in with us. Their dad had died a few years earlier, and we had just gotten into the rhythms of being a family headed by one adult and not two.
Then, all of a sudden, here was this new person in their lives who was a grown-up with the associated role, but initially, also still an outsider to our family.
He and the kids got along great and they adored each other, which was a huge factor in my decision to pursue such a serious relationship.
But initially, he treaded very lightly around the dynamics and rules and structures we had developed – and I was intentionally continuing to do the bulk of the parenting and keeping him a little at arm’s length from the nitty grit of childrearing.
However, to complicate matters, I was already pregnant when he arrived, and we talked about the fact that once I had the new baby, his role as a parent to all the kids would be much more prominent.
And while that was obvious to us, among the many things I worried about was how to help my new partner respect my kids’ boundaries, both established and emerging, while still giving him more and more responsibility with them.
Some things were clear: We all called him by his first name and made sure that the kids knew that having him in the house didn’t mean we couldn’t talk about their dad. Plus, he started coming to their activities and spending more time with them when I wasn’t around.
That all just seemed to come naturally. But what was harder was the seemingly small stuff about which we discovered we had different opinions.
One area was food. I am deliberately laissez faire about what my kids eat, on the philosophy that the more I make an issue about food, the more it will become one for them. My partner feels that it’s important for kids to eat what’s prepared, and he doesn’t like the idea of curating individual meals for every member of the family.
And while this might seem like a minor thing, even addressing something like this can be hard. Partly because parenting with someone else is just plain tricky, and having to consider or rationalize choices is complicated.
But that’s not it alone. Many parents who are in new relationships are very worried about how these relationships will affect our kids.
Additionally, some parents with new partners are caught between wanting a partner to take on a parenting role and wanting a partner to be totally hands off. This divide can make it hard to know when to step in and when to back off.
As a result, we may not always assert ourselves even when we know that an often well-intentioned, but misguided, partner is crossing our kids’ boundaries. And if we are parenting non-traditionally, it can be particularly hard to challenge a new partner who holds more old-school and long accepted views.
But these are things we are all working out, and minor setbacks don’t mean that that you’ve brought a terrible person into your kids’ lives. They just mean you might have to think through an issue and how to help your new partner understand where you’re coming from.
So to help you do that, here are four areas where children’s boundaries are commonly crossed and how you can help your partner respect them.
1. Helping Your Partner Respect Your Kids’ Boundaries Around Food
Recently, I was listening to a podcast where the comedian W. Kamau Bell talked to his mom, Janet Cheatham Bell, about her experiences with sex and dating as a single parent. At one point, they discussed an incident where a man Cheatham Bell was seeing took the family out for dinner.
As a child, Bell had a small appetite, and as his mom tells him on the show, “I never tried to force you to eat more because I figured if you were full you were full.” But the man she was seeing had different views on the matter and tried to get him to take a bigger portion.
The result? That date was their last.
When I heard this, my first thought was, Wow! Way to stick up for your kid! But I also thought that taking such a hard line in that kind of situation would be really tough for a lot of folks.
It might be hard for you to imagine breaking up with a new partner in such a situation.
One reason is that while some parents have firm dating rules, many others don’t. Plus, when the issue is food, a lot of us are ourselves struggling with how to address this with our kids.
I know I’m still working on how to make sure my kids eat healthfully while also maintaining an atmosphere where they feel in control of what they eat.
That’s tricky to do since, as Paige Lucas-Stannard explains on this site, we often deny children’s feelings, assuming we know better. As she says, that can mean that, for example, when a kid complains of being hungry right after dinner, we may reply, that’s not possible, since you just ate.
But a lot of people have a lot of firm ideas about food, things like: You get what you get or clean your plate since there are children starving around the world. And many of us think nothing of griping that a child is picky, forcing a child to have just a few more bites, or using dessert as a reward, all problematic for a range of reasons.
Now, it’s one thing if you are working on personally challenging such ideas. It’s whole different thing if it is a new partner who is coming in with such views and assumes that imparting them on your kids is the responsible thing to do.
Your partner might have good reasons for holding their views – maybe they grew up poor are are acting out of a sense of scarcity, maybe this is based on their understanding of nutrition.
But you can still help them understand that a lot of people’s deeply held ideas about food are not based on science, and when forced on children, they can reinforce the idea that kids aren’t in control of making choices around their bodies, which is damaging and dangerous.
2. Helping Your Partner Respect Your Kids’ Boundaries Around Touch
One of the places adults seem to consistently forget the importance of a kid’s boundaries is around social or playful touching.
A lot of us live in communities where hugging and cheek kissing are the expected greeting. And plenty of grown-ups think nothing of picking up a small child and swinging them around, or playing games that involve roughhousing or tickling.
But many kids dread the obligatory Aunt Susie kiss or the supposed to be-fun-but-isn’t wrestling match with Grandpa Phil.
So what happens if you aren’t sure how your kid feels themself?
This is a place where intuition can only go so far. So asking your child how they feel about everything from goodnight kisses to relative hugs is important, and also, not too hard.
Neither is passing on that message to the new adult in your life.
Now, some people are resistant to this notion. You might hear something like, “But my mother would be so offended if Tommy didn’t hug her when she comes over!”
That’s when you need to step in and explain that Tommy’s discomfort with hugs isn’t any reflection on your partner’s mom, and that far from fostering intimacy, forcing a child to hug an adult can make that child avoidant of situations where such touching might occur – and it denies them bodily autonomy.
It’s also important to understand that it’s A-OK for your physical relationship with your children to be different from the relationship they have with your new partner or anyone else. Just because you kiss and cuddle them at bedtime, that doesn’t mean that’s automatically the right way for your new partner to relate to your kids.
3. Helping Your Partner Respect Your Kids’ Boundaries Around Privacy
One of the issues that a lot of families struggle with, and more so as kids get older, is privacy.
A lot of parents feel that they’re being negligent if they don’t ask children probing questions – let alone fail to oversee every online move of their wired kids.
But not everyone agrees that this is the best tactic.
For example, when it comes to the Internet, philosophy professor Kay Mathiesen argues in Ethics and Information Technology that children have a right to online privacy from their parents, “because such a right respects their current capacities and fosters their future capacities for autonomy and relationships.”
And an article in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper looking at when attempts to protect our children turn into an invasion of their privacy goes even further. Citing the findings of psychologists, media experts, and a report from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, it determined that:
“A lack of privacy in children’s lives can undermine trust, promote secrecy and hinder their ability to assess risk and develop independence. As well, young people who grow up in an environment where their privacy isn’t respected may not learn to understand or value it.”
These notions can be tough for a new partner who is fearful of the consequences of allowing kids privacy (Internet predators! Drugs! Sex!) to digest.
But it can be really beneficial to highlight the benefits of privacy and encourage an environment where the privacy of all members of the household is respected – say, by requiring kids and grown-ups alike to knock before entering a room with a closed door, having people ask to use each others phones of computers, and regardless of age, allowing uninterrupted personal conversations.
Plus, the way you interact with many aspects of your children’s privacy, and the way your new partner does, are not going to be the same.
In one pretty clear example, you coming into the room when your kids are changing is a very different thing than a new partner doing so. While that might seem obvious, if it isn’t, that is just really crucial to point out!
4. Helping Your Partner Respect Your Kids’ Emotional Boundaries
In addition to the need for privacy, a lot of kids also have emotional boundaries surrounding their feelings and how they express them.
Yet in many families, kids’ feelings are denied. Children are often told they aren’t allowed to be mad or scared or anxious. (I know I have diminished my children’s feelings often enough with a “Really, is this worth getting upset about?”).
And plenty of adults seem to think that they’re somehow setting kids up to respect authority by telling them they can’t say no to, or question, a grown-up. But this is a dangerous lesson.
Indeed, as Libby Anne writes at Love, Joy, Feminism, “Teaching your child to never say ‘no’ to an authority is not preparing them for adulthood. At all. Instead, it prepares them to fall into patterns of abuse or dysfunction. It prepares them to obey an unreasonable or abusive boss rather than going to HR or quitting and finding another job. And so forth. Children need to know that they can say ‘no’ to those in authority over them, both as children and, in the future, as adults.”
If your partner is in the habit of denying your kid’s feelings, or is on the “don’t talk back to an adult” trip, you need to make clear why this is not okay.
Stressing that kids are not only entitled to their own emotional life, but will also derive lifelong strengths if they come from a place where their feelings are validated, can help a new partner challenge long held beliefs.
Plus, many people, including maybe your new partner, fall into the adultism trap where they assume that the simple fact of their age should give them power over children. But a new adult in your children’s life needs to understand that in order to get respect from your children, they also need to be giving it out.
Remember: Adults Don’t Always Know Best
Parents generally want their new partners be a positive force in their children’s lives. Yet sometimes, in an attempt to keep the peace with a partner, or to let a partner assert themselves as either an authority figure or as a parenting one, we stand by or ignore a partner who oversteps our children’s boundaries.
But doing so isn’t going to create family harmony in the long run, and it can do a real disservice to our kids.
Obviously, we may not see eye-to-eye on children with our partners (something that plenty of folks who have co-parented kids from birth also experience!).
But introducing a new partner to the idea that even young kids should have their boundaries respected can make for healthier situations all around. It can not only show your kids that you have their backs, but also help you work through areas where you might be overstepping their boundaries as well.
I know I’ve been really lucky to have a partner whose natural instinct on most issues has been to let the kids lead the way in regards to their boundaries – and as a result, they’ve built a strong foundation for their relationship.
But even the most solid foundations need to be built, and the work needed to do that isn’t always the most obvious.
Ellen Friedrichs is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a health educator, sometimes writer, and mom. She has worked at Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, developed sex education curricula in Mumbai, India, and run HIV prevention programs for at-risk teens in the South Bronx. Currently, Ellen runs a middle and high school health education program and teaches human sexuality at Brooklyn College. More of Ellen’s writing can be found here. Follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.
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