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Should my boyfriend discipline my kids?

Sharing parental authority with a new mate can be difficult for you and your kids. Dr. Ruth Peters offers advice on when and how to start.

Q: When is a good time to relinquish my discipline authority to a mate?  I am a single parent of two boys ages 9 and 13.  I have been in a monogamous relationship with a man for four years. While I totally trust and love this man with all of my heart, and my boys have established a good relationship with him, I still play the part of Mom and Dad, especially when it comes to discipline. My sons do not see their biological father, so my boyfriend is the main male role model in their lives. Am I being unfair by not allowing him to assist me in the rearing of my children? Ultimately I want my boys to grow up to be strong men, and without a male figure guiding them, I’m afraid that might not happen.

A: Whew! So many questions, so little time to answer! Let’s take a look at each of your concerns individually. First, letting your partner help with discipline and take an active role in raising your children is far from “relinquishing authority.” You are the mom, and since their biological father is no longer involved, the buck stops with you when it comes to who’s in charge and who gets to call the shots. Letting a partner of four years whom you trust and who has a good relationship with the boys help to make some disciplinary decisions may be long overdue!

Many times two heads are better than one, and your boyfriend may have a different perspective on what makes your sons tick, what’s important to grade school and middle school boys, and how best to understand and advise them. This in no way suggests that you, as their mom, can’t do a bang-up job of single parenting, but I am asking you to consider that taking into consideration a male point of view may be helpful. Sometimes guys will be guys, and we just don’t get it! On other issues (completing homework before the television goes on after school) gender difference will not come into play. But I can see how your boyfriend’s take could be invaluable in regard to such issues as having to sit on the bench rather than getting into the game, handling teasing or taunting on the playground or dealing with peer pressure from buddies who want to push the envelope when it comes to risk-taking games or activities. Let me reiterate, though — you can advise your sons on these same issues in a practical, wise manner quite well … it just doesn’t hurt to get another’s perspective.

Now, let’s tackle the discipline issue. I know this is a tough one; I’ve counseled families in which the kids deeply resent anyone other than the biological parent handing out restrictions and consequences, whereas other homes work quite well with both partners calling the shots. I don’t believe that you have to be married to allow your boyfriend to suggest and implement disciplinary measures. The main point is that if he does become involved with discipline that the two of you agree upon the basics as to what behaviors are expected, which ones will be punished, and what consequences will occur. And if you do disagree, discuss it privately so that the kids are not confused by adult disagreements on what is fair and what is unreasonable.

In many families I often notice the step-dad or partner slowly taking the lead in terms of discipline. Often this occurs because kids tend to react more quickly to the male voice, and guys are generally (but not always!) more firm in their requests for children to complete homework, clean bedrooms and get to bed on time. Kids seem to negotiate more with their mothers, or at least try to, and often the dynamic in the household evolves into “wait till your father gets home” in terms of getting the kids to complete homework or chores. It’s very, very important that if you decide to co-discipline with your partner that you stay involved in making the decisions, consistently following through with the consequences.  The “tag-team” approach — adults communicating and checking with each other about the rules and responsibilities, as well as meting out similar consequences, seems to work best. Since your boys appear to like and respect your partner, they’ll probably accept his involvement as long as he’s fair and basically on the same disciplinary page as you. And, it sure helps if he is also involved in the fun stuff — watching their ball games, playing video games and shooting hoops in the driveway.

And, finally, please don’t worry about your sons not growing up to be “strong men.” The goal is for the boys to develop into self-confident, compassionate and self-sufficient adults, and this can certainly occur without the significant involvement of a male figure in their lives. These attributes are based in their learning responsibility, frustration tolerance, perseverance, and caring for others.  That can be accomplished by a two-parent household, a grandma or grandpa, or a single female parent. There are and will continue to be many male figures in the boys’ lives — teachers, coaches, youth leaders, relatives and neighbors to help to guide and model traditionally male-oriented activities. Relax, enjoy them, and consider sharing the responsibility with the man you love and respect!

Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to the “Today” show. Her most recent book, “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” is published by Rodale. (See excerpts .) For more information you can visit her Web site at .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.