Single-Parent Sex: Getting Caught with Your Pants Down. Literally.

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a single dad and have been going out with a wonderful woman for quite a while. She sometimes spends the night, but last time, my 8-year-old daughter walked in on us while we were making love. I don’t think she was there very long, but she was crying and seemed frightened by the whole thing, and my girlfriend didn’t take it too well either. What should I do? Did I just scar my daughter for life?

A: Ah, yes, the joys of single-parent dating. Bedtime stories are done, the kids are asleep, you and your lover slowly make your way from your candle-lit dinner to the bedroom for a little adult time—clothing optional. Things are going marvelously, wonderfully, delightfully… Then, out the corner of your eye, you see a teddy bear in your doorway—and it’s attached to your child. What a way to ruin the mood.
Chances are you haven’t done any long-term damage to your daughter. But in situations like these, it’s important to respond right away—even if you’re convinced that she wasn’t watching for very long. Young kids can be confused by entangled, naked bodies and the accompanying sound effects, and may worry that mom or dad (or both) are fighting and are hurting each other. Here’s what you should do:

  • Stay calm. Yelling at a child to “get out of here!” could frighten her even more and convince her that you were doing something bad.
  • Don’t let her go away alone. If she runs away on her own, go after her. If not, take her by the hand and lead her back to her bed. Then, sit with her and reassure her that you weren’t being hurt or hurting anyone else. If you think she’s mature enough to understand, tell her that adults sometimes express their love for each other that way. But don’t be surprised if you get a sarcastic snort. Even very young children have seen a lot more than we had back in the day and they usually know a lot more about things than we give them credit for. If she asks for a more sophisticated explanation, give her one, complete with the proper names for the organs involved. But don’t go overboard.
  • No apologies (unless you screamed at your child). Your child may have gotten the message earlier than you would have liked, but she needs to know that sex is a normal thing that grown-ups sometimes do. If you act embarrassed or ashamed (and you very well may be), your child could end up with the idea that sex is, well, something to be embarrassed and ashamed of. If you want your child to have a health attitude about sex as she gets older, that’s exactly the wrong message.
  • Talk to the other adult involved. Making sure your child is okay comes first. Once that situation is resolved, you need to check in with your girlfriend. If she’s thrown her clothes on and is slipping out the back door, don’t let her go—you guys need to have a chat. Yes, getting caught in the act can be disconcerting, but it shouldn’t affect your relationship. Although it might make her think twice before agreeing to sleep over at your house ever again.
  • Use protection. No, not that kind. Your choice of birth control is your own business. The protection I’m talking about is called a lock: install one or make better use of the one you already have.

Are You in Terre Haute, Indiana?

I’ll be in Terre Haute, Indiana next week giving a series of presentations. If you’re in the neighborhood and can make it, please come by and say Hello! Here’s the schedule:

Wednesday, Oct 1, 2-3pm
Parenting Strategies for Military Dads and Families
181st Intelligence Wing
Air National Guard Base Dining Facility

Wednesday, Oct 1, 7-8pm
Campus event: Thinking about Parenthood
Indiana State University
Hulman Memorial Student Union, Dede 1

Thursday Oct 2, 6:00 – 6:45
Single Parents
Sarah Scott Middle School, Cafeteria
1000 Grant Street
Terre Haute, IN 47802

Sometimes Being “Good Enough” Is Plenty

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a newly divorced single father. I hear a lot about how children in divorced families have all sorts of behavioral problems, do worse in school, abuse drugs, are depressed and anxious, and on and on. It’s scaring the heck out of me and makes me think that no matter what I do, my kids are doomed. I want to be an amazing dad and give my kids the best possible life. Isn’t there something I can do?

A: I get this question a lot and wish there was some way to get the media to quit portraying children in divorced families as self-destructive, failure-bombs waiting to explode. The reality is that kids whose parents have split (whether by divorce or the breakup of a never-married couple), can do just as well as any other kids. There are definitely some obstacles, but they can be overcome. Here are a few ideas that will help.
[Read more…]

Single Parent Discipline

Q:I’m a single father and I’m finding it harder and harder to keep my kids in line. When I was married, their mother and I could back each other up. But now that I’m alone, I don’t seem to have the energy to take a stand like I know I should as their parent. What can I do to regain control?

A: At one time or another, all parents struggle with discipline–establishing and enforcing limits, and getting their kids to speak to them respectfully and do what they’re supposed to do. For single parents, though, who are already probably pretty exhausted, anything other than putting food on the table and clothes in the closet may seem like too much trouble to worry about. But this is important. So if you feel yourself becoming more lenient, stricter, or just plain inconsistent, here’s how to stop.

  • Be consistent. Not only on a day-to-day basis right now, but consistent with the way you and your spouse used to do things before you became a single parent. In addition, try to work with your ex to come up with a discipline plan that’s consistent between homes and agree to back each other up on how you’ll enforce limits. If you can’t, you’ll have to be firm in telling your kids that, “in your mom’s house you follow her rules, but in this house, you’ll have to follow mine.”
  • Establish and enforce reasonable limits. No child will ever admit it, but the truth is that he needs to know who’s boss and he needs that person to be you. Setting your expectations too high, though, can also be a problem, frustrating your kids and making them feel bad or inadequate when they can’t comply.
  • Link consequences directly to the behavior. “I’m taking away your hammer because you hit me with it,” or “Since you didn’t get home by your curfew, you can’t go out with your friends tonight.”
  • Don’t worry. Unless the limits you set are completely insane, your child will not stop loving you for enforcing them.
  • Chose your battles. Some issues–those that involve health and safety, for example–are non-negotiable. Others don’t really matter. Does it really make a difference if your child wants to wear a red sock and an argyle one instead of a matched pair?
  • Give limited choices. “Either you stop talking to me that way right now or go to your room.”
  • Encourage your kids to be independent. “When parents do too much for children, to ‘make up’ for the fact that they have only one parent, the children don’t have a chance to develop responsibility, initiative, and new skills,” writes Jane Nelsen, co-author of Positive Discipline for Single Parents. But don’t go too far here. Your kids still need structure.
  • Understand your child’s behavior. According to Nelsen, kids misbehave for one or more of the following reasons:
    • they want attention
    • they want to be in control
    • they want to get back at you for something you did
    • they’re frustrated and they just want to give up and be left alone

    Trying to punish a child without understanding why she’s doing what she’s doing is a little like taking cough syrup for emphysema: the thing that’s bugging you goes away for a while, but the underlying problem remains–and keeps getting worse with time. The most direct way to solve this is to simply ask your child–in many case she’ll tell you. If she won’t tell you or doesn’t have the vocabulary to do so, make an educated guess (“Are you writing on the walls because you want me to spend more time with you?”).