Dear Mr. Dad: I've been dating a wonderful man and think he's "the one." The only issue is that he has a two-year-old child. I never wanted to be a parent (I'm not sure I even liked kids), but that's changed. I think I'm ready to be a stepmother and even have a child of my own, once he puts a ring on it. But my friends say I'm getting in over my head. Do you think I can do it?
A: The fact that you're asking is a pretty good indicator that you have what it takes. But be prepared: parenting, especially in the early years, is about making sacrifices (time, money, personal space, activities, plans for the future, and so on.) and putting the children's needs ahead of your own. There are tremendous rewards (a sense of fulfillment and purpose, for example), but it's a challenge. So can you do it? Yes -- if you're willing to give your children the following.
1. Safety. Children won't feel secure around you if they don't trust you. If you sense that your boyfriend's child is uneasy or unhappy, you'll need to figure out what the problem is. Otherwise, long term, his or her health and learning could be negatively affected and ultimately, so could your relationship with both father and child.
2. Love. Love and hugs are a must for every child. If your boyfriend's toddler will cuddle with you, great. If not, start with a goodnight kiss, a pat on the shoulder, or, best of all, reading him or her a story.
3. Praise. Every child wants to be acknowledged for doing something good. Therefore, you should praise him or her whenever possible. Just make sure you're being sincere. And praise the effort ("You worked really hard on this!") rather than the finished product ("You're a great artist!").
4. Conversation. Relationships are based on common values and experiences, and the best way to discover them is to talk with each other. Some kids are naturally talkative, others may need a little encouragement to open up. If you need some conversation starters, talk about things you did as a child (especially when you got into trouble).
5. Listening. Children, especially older ones, want to know that the adults in their life value them and their opinions and listen to them. If the child asks you a direct question, answer it. But otherwise, just listen attentively and ask a few probing questions (like "And then what did they do?" or "That must have made you feel really proud").
6. New experiences. Children are naturally curious creatures and love having an adult partner to explore their world with. Sharing adventures with your boyfriend's child is a wonderful way to bond with each other (and to learn lots of cool new stuff).
7. Unconditional support. Children need to know that their adults will always be there for them -- even if they can't articulate exactly why. Sometimes they just need a few comforting words, other times, it's a shoulder to cry on.
8. Traditions -- old and new. Babies and young children (and to a lesser extent, older kids and adults) love routines and family traditions. Your boyfriend and his child most likely already have some. Feel free to join in. But also try to come up with some new traditions that include you.
9. Boundaries. New stepparents always want to feel loved by their stepchildren. But they often fall into the trap of trying to "buy" that love, with gifts or by relaxing boundaries and rules. Don't do that. While your boyfriend should be in charge of disciplining his child, you need to back him up by having the same expectations when that child is with you.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(c)2019 Armin Brott
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