Dating a single father is no walk in the park. But let’s face it; divorce is so common these days (more marriages end in divorce than not) that there are a ton of single parents out there, back in the dating world. If you are of a certain age, you are bound to find yourself dating a single mom or dad. I’m my case, it was a single dad.

I had absolutely no parenting background and up until a few years ago, I wasn’t even sure I wanted kids. Quickly approaching 40, I was leaning toward no. Nevertheless, I began dating this incredible guy who also happened to be an incredible dad. He always had his daughter’s interests in mind. In fact, the only reason he found himself living in this state is because he followed his ex-wife here, where she moved with his 4 year old daughter. She was 6 by the time he got here and 8 when I met her. He introduced me to her slowly and we had been together for about 4 months before I spent any significant amount of time with her. The thing is, as soon as you meet, the child begins to think of you as their stepmom (or stepdad, whatever the case may be for you). So the judgment begins at the get-go. Judgment on both ends. She thinks, “is this person going to be my stepmom?” while you think, “do I really want her as a stepdaughter?” I decided to test the waters and dive in.

I made some mistakes initially. We all do; parenting is really hard and I’d argue that stepparenting is even harder. The role of a stepparent is ambiguous and boundaries are unclear. There is a tendency to tiptoe around issues because line-crossing could be detrimental to the relationships with both your spouse and the child.

Unfortunately I haven’t found many interesting books about Stepparenting, and not many that I could relate to. The word itself – stepmother – has a negative connotation. I always go right back to the first time I understood what the word meant: Cinderella and her wicked stepsisters; the old saying about “red-headed stepchildren”. Throw in the hideous stepmother in Hansel and Gretel and you’ve got the trifecta of Evil.

If you want to avoid the visuals that the word “stepmother” puts in your head, some other ideas are using the term Bonus Mom or Dad, which is a very pleasant alternative. Some also have the just used the words Mama or Papa in front of their first names, such as Mama Jen or Papa Dave. Or of course they can just call you by your first name, which is what my stepdaughter does.

The most helpful tool I’ve found so far is a program called Love and Logic. It’s been around for 40 years and they have seminars all over the country. Their books are fantastic for managing the behavior of kids of all ages and for families of all types. They have a specific book for Stepparenting in addition to DVDs and audiobooks on the subject. This information gave a great starting place and a guide for the rough ride ahead.

It’s incredibly common for a kid to be disrespectful, entitled, and any other number of adjectives when in these types of circumstances. I had a really hard time with this in the beginning. But when I discovered how to set the tone in our relationship, it became clear to me that we had a unique relationship, different than that of the ones she has with her parents. The way I treated her (like a positive role model to a protégé) impacted how she treated me. It was interesting; she didn’t pull the same stuff with me that she did with her dad. Was it because she knew I wasn’t “required” to love her the way her parents did? Or maybe because I wasn’t doing the punishing directly? Most likely, it’s because of our unique relationship… one of honest and direct communication, empathy, and refraining from arguing or raising my voice.

The best way to “win” an argument with a kid is to avoid having it. You never have to engage in an argument. Use a go-to phrase such as “I know” or “That’s a shame”. You can also offer to argue with him or her at a certain time of day. When they start an argument you can just remind them of your “arguing hours” and say you’d be happy to talk more about it then. There are many strategies for avoiding arguments and letting consequences do the teaching (instead of punishing which only causes the kid to be angry at you instead of the consequence of their actions). Love and Logic goes into great detail about these strategies and I highly recommend checking it out (and no, I’m not being paid to say that! J).

If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are a few tips:

Know that his or her anger and/or hesitance are natural and completely understandable. Put yourself in their shoes. There are so many challenges involved in living in 2 different homes and they didn’t ask for this. For example, she discovers that she left her homework or favorite shoes at dad’s house over the weekend. Think about the times you left your sunglasses at your friend’s house. Frustrating, isn’t it. And you have a car to go get them; the child does not. Nor does she have the freedom to come and go as she wants.
Do not try to be a mother or father to them. That kind of affection and intimacy may and likely will happen eventually, but the best place to start is by being a friend. Not a buddy, necessarily, but a positive adult role model who speaks to them on their level. You can be a caring, influential adult in his or her life who can see things more objectively. This will likely be very attractive to the kid when they are in their teens and need someone to listen without judgment. You will also be able to be more open -minded because you aren’t so attached to the outcome of the discussion… or to the choices they make. You might be the ideal ear for them in certain scenarios. Not to mention that rebelling against mom or dad might lead them straight to you.
You should always discuss your parenting point of view with your partner before you spring it onto their kid; especially your view on drugs, sex, and school work. You don’t want to go doling out advice that is in direct conflict with the views of your husband or wife.
Think of your role as that of a teacher to a student. Authority is implied and respect is expected. A good teacher establishes boundaries. Those boundaries will often be tested. But a teacher does not take a student’s behavior personally. Neither should you. Try researching what teachers do to manage difficult students.
Speak honestly and be direct. Don’t raise your voice. Raising one’s voice generally just incites anger and lead to both of you raising your voice. You do not want to get into a shouting match with the child. You lose all credibility as an authoritative adult.
Give up needing to have the last word. This alone might do wonders for your relationship. You don’t have to respond to everything they say. In some ways the less you say, the better. The last comment they make (often snarky) has no bearing on the situation and does not get them anything more out of the situation. But when you stop speaking, the argument is over. Consider that a success.
If you have fallen for a single mom or dad, don’t despair. It doesn’t have to be a horrible or terrifying thing to be a stepparent. Just know you can, and you can. As a man thinketh, so is he.