One common dilemma for stepparents is how to handle rules when your child lives with his/her other parent most of the time. How do you handle being only a weekend parent? My experiences as a foster parent taught me a few important principles that may help.
I started my foster care journey as an emergency home, where children lived with me for only a short time until their caseworker could find a permanent placement. Later, I provided respite care, where children stayed with me on the weekends or while their foster parents had to travel for work. My time as a respite parent was much like those of you who don’t have primary custody of your children. I cared about the kids, but I had limited time to help and teach them. Even so, I found that there were things that I could put in place to make all our lives a bit easier.
Ease Into Rules and Boundaries
Children need structure, even on the weekends, but don’t rush to set all the house rules all at once. At first, this will be a strange situation for your child and they will need some time to get used to it. Give them time to get to know you and vice versa. Ask about their interests and preferences. If you have other step-siblings, give all of them time to figure out their relationships before you start trying to manage things.
Going slow doesn’t mean setting no rules at first. Certainly you need to establish boundaries related to safety and mutual respect. So feel free to set boundaries such as curfews, no-profanity, and staying out of each other’s rooms. But things that have more complicated and long-term impact, such as television time, may need to wait.
Cell phones are a particularly tricky issue. On the one hand, taking a child’s cell phone is a time-honored logical consequence for rule violations. On the other hand, it can be a child’s only lifeline to their “other” life. It can be particularly difficult if their custodial parent wants to be able to reach them at all times. Every situation needs its own answer, but know that you need to tread very carefully in this area.
Don’t Apologize for Your House Rules
Don’t feel obligated to meld your rules with the rules they have with their other parent. If biological parents can get along well enough to cooperate, then life is much easier. But that situation is rare and not realistic in most situations. The best compromise I have found is that each adult sets the rules for his/her own house. Then, when a child complains, “Mom doesn’t make me go to bed this early,” then you can calmly reply, “I know, but those are the rules here.”
I have found that saying “these are the house rules” causes less conflict than saying “these are my rules.” Somehow, making a rule for the location makes it less personal. That trick doesn’t make all of the conflict go away, but it does seem to lower the level.
I have had friends worry that different rules can be confusing for a child. In my experience, children can understand quite clearly that different locations have different rules. They know that they can’t wear the same clothes at school that they can at home, or that they can’t be as loud in their grandparents’ house as they can with their parents. Knowing that different behavior is appropriate in different places is one of the first life lessons that children learn. In any event, following different rules with different parents will not be any more confusing than the undeniable fact that they have two different families.
Have Consistent Rules
Your house rules, however, do need to be consistent. What confuses children more than anything else is when the rules change without warning or logic. They can learn that they follow X set of rules at X house, and Y set of rules at Y house. What they cannot understand is when the adults at X house start randomly enforcing X, Y & Z rules at their whim. No one can function well in the environment, and it causes both confusion and a lot of stress.
Having consistent rules is one reason to go slow in setting them. Be certain that you are willing to consistently enforce your rules every time your child stays with you. It may be tempting to give the kids a break, and sometimes you may need to deal with bigger issues at that moment. In general, though, children need consistent structure whenever you can give it to them.
It can be tempting to be the “Disneyland” parent, who spends the weekends doing fun stuff with kids. As one friend once said, “Why should I spend what little time I have with my son being the disciplinarian? I would much rather work on the relationship.” The problem with his theory is that an important part of a parent-child relationship is providing structure. Children need to see their parents setting healthy boundaries. If all they ever see is how you entertain them, they will have difficulty thinking of you as a serious person who can help them with serious problems. Of course, like all families, having fun is an important part of building a relationship. But spending most of your time on fun is like eating mostly dessert. It doesn’t last and is not good for your family in the long run.
Have Short-Term Consequences
Another difficulty in being only a weekend parent is that most of the time you can’t set consequences that last longer than your child’s time with you. There is no point in grounding a teenager for 6 weeks, for example, if she is with you only every other weekend. Similarly, if you ground her for the next 6 weekends that she is with you, it will be an interminable slog for both of you.
So look for consequences that you can control. I like allowances, for example, because I can withhold part of the money as a logical consequence for things such as property damage or not doing chores. The consequences mirror real life, and I don’t have to worry about enforcing them after the weekend is over. Whatever your situation, look for realistic and creative ways that you can enforce your rules during the time that you can control.
Being a weekend parent is a difficult job. We have a responsibility to raise our child, but limited time and authority. But if we concentrate on being consistent and calm during the time that we have, we still can be an important influence on our children.