Family Almanac

When Stepchildren Visit, Be Flexible With Rules

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 19, 2007

Q. I'm crazy about my two stepchildren, now 13 and 16, but we've hit some bumps in the road.

Although my husband sees them twice a week, we have them only every third weekend, and the rules at our house are quite different from the rules at their regular home.

The biggest problems occur at night with my 13-year-old stepdaughter. She says that her mother doesn't set a bedtime for her on the weekends and that she's on the Internet or watching TV until 2 or 3 a.m. and sleeps on the couch in the living room sometimes. This can leave her exhausted on Saturday so she tries to nap for an hour or so.

At our home, we brush our teeth together, she gets in her pj's and goes to bed -- somewhat unwillingly -- at 10:30. But she usually wants me to lie down with her. She says she sleeps with her mother because her room is so messy, but I think this is strange.

Both kids also like to sleep with the light on -- another odd custom -- and she whines when we turn it out. But it's disruptive to have the light on all night and to have her walking around.

We do leave the hall light on and I give her a flashlight if she says she's scared, even though we share a wall and tell her that we're close by. Nevertheless, she often jumps out of bed, turns the light back on and reads -- sometimes until 3 in the morning. If I find out, I turn off the light despite her protests, and we still get her up the next day so she can get back on schedule for the school week.

We also have the kids make their beds, do chores and help us cook, which they don't do at home, even though we encourage them to help their mother. How can we present a united front?

A.You needn't bother. Children, of any age, will accept different rules in different households -- or from different people in the same household -- unless they think that someone is simply trying to control them. Then they rebel. That may be happening in your house.

You can't treat a 13-year-old as if she were 10 or 12 or tell her to do something "because I said so." Any child has the right to know why she is given a particular order, especially a teenager.

It's time to tell your stepchildren the truth. They need to know that you and their dad treasure your time with them and that you'd rather go biking or to a ballgame together or see a cool exhibit than fuss at them to get up.

You may be tempted to say, "When will I do my weekend chores?" but some weeks you'll just have to market and do the laundry at night. Your stepchildren matter more than your chores. These small sacrifices will make your weekends with the children freer and more fun and show them just how crazy you are about them. Actions really do speak louder than words.

Since your stepdaughter is 13 and a true night owl, you might also let her stay up until 11, then crawl into her bed and read alongside her for a while. Even if she reads for another half-hour after you go to your room, she can still get at least nine hours of sleep, if you let her sleep in for a bit.

You also should let your stepchildren sleep with the lights on in their rooms, no matter how odd the practice seems to you. If the light makes a child feel a little less scared -- or a little more comfortable -- let there be light. And if the light bothers you, have your stepdaughter close her door or cover your eyes with a mask. If her footsteps bother you, wear earplugs. Any company -- no matter how welcome -- disrupts a household to some extent, but your stepchildren don't sound too bothersome. They're there only one weekend a month -- and they're worth it.

Make sure that they get up by 10 every morning, that they do their chores every weekend and that they learn how to hang a picture, make brownies or master some other task every time they visit. Each new skill they learn will make them feel better about themselves and about you.

You'll find other ways to improve your relationship in "Stepchildren Speak" by Susan Philips (AYWN, $14.95), who interviewed 10 grown-up stepchildren extensively to find out what worked and didn't work for them.

Questions? Send them toadvice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company