I just moved in with my fiancé whose 5-year-old daughter stays with us part of the week. On the evenings she’s at the house, my fiance just goes to sleep, leaving me to entertain her. (She likes to play endless games like “Guess how many fingers I’m holding up!”) Well, I work a full-time job, and I’m exhausted in the evenings. He and I got into a big fight because I said he can’t just clock out like this. He told me that I need to “set boundaries” with her. Is this really my job? I’m not her mother, and I’m not even officially her stepmother yet. –Dismayed
So what did he do before you moved in, just chain her to the radiator while he took a snooze?
When I was growing up, I’d have to play with toys by myself or go out and poke a worm with a stick. These days, parents go way over the top in how involved they think they should be in playtime and kids exploit this, extorting constant adult attention.
Developmental psychologist Peter Gray explains that play evolved to be the “primary means” for children to learn to solve their own problems, overcome their fears and take control of their lives, and this parents-as-playmates thing may stunt kids’ self-reliance. Gray, like anthropologist David Lancy, points out that parents being all up in kids’ playtime business is a very recent development. Throughout human history, parents have been too busy doing the little things – you know, like trying to keep the family from starving to death – to read the hieroglyphic version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar to their kid 500 times in a row.
It isn’t fair for your fiance to clock out and make you Youth Activities Director. (I’m guessing your Match.com profile didn’t have you listed as BirthdayClown777.) It’s also important that you develop a nice warm relationship with this little girl before you start going all Department of Corrections on her. Connection first, discipline second is the order in which the most successful stepparent-stepchild relationships are formed, explains stepfamily researcher Kay Pasley.
Of course, it is essential to set boundaries with willful, ill-behaved brats, including those who are, oh, 45. (Fatherhood is a journey, but not just from the living room to the bed.) As for how much of a role you’ll take in stepmommying, deciding that is part of deciding how your marriage will play out day to day, and that takes discussion: what you’re each comfortable with, what you need and what seems fair. (Who knew? There’s more to marital planning than cage fighting another bride for the hot caterer.) Once you and he figure everything out, you and your stepdaughter can play many fun games – starting with one of my favorites from Camp Tamakwa: “Let’s draw a pee-pee on your sleeping dad’s face with permanent marker!”
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