Hi Dr Justin,
I have a seven-year-old daughter. Her father and I split when she was three, and she still sees him every second weekend. I have now got a partner, who I have been with for two years and has lived with us for a year. They get along well and I often see them playing together, but sometimes she is very disrespectful towards him. Like at school drop-off she refuses to hold his hand and sometimes to let him in the classroom or to hug him goodbye.
He does not have children of his own but he does really well with explaining to her what she’s done if she’s been disrespectful, but it really gets to him that she does not give that respect sometimes.
We tell her she needs to be nice and to show respect but then we are stuck with the next step.
Dr Justin responds:
It is a frustrating reality (albeit an important one) that our children are not perfectly compliant. They have their own emotions, their own annoyances, and their own perspectives. We wish they would see things our way. They wish we would see things their way.
When we introduce a new partner to our children, there are a few things we should consider, particularly if that partner is a male.
First, we should never force or demand physical contact between our child and a new man. While our children are biologically wired to connect with their dad, this intrinsic pull does not necessarily exist for other people, even if those people are close to us as adults. Part of this may be a protection mechanism. Regardless of how safe and trustworthy your new partner is, your daughter should never feel compelled to hold hands, hug, or kiss him. If she chooses to because she feels safe, great! But if not, don’t pressure her. (This should be the case whether a child is biologically related or not. No child should ever be forced to hug or kiss someone.)
Second, we will do well to remember that our children usually know and comprehend that the new partner we bring into their lives is not their new parent, and many children resist our efforts to promote the idea that the new partner will act like a parent. While children should be respectful of all adults, many will reject any suggestion that a new partner can replace or substitute for their dad (or mum).
Third, we should never confuse displays of affection with respect. If a child does not wish to be affectionate, this is not necessarily disrespectful. In fact, it may be more disrespectful of us to insist that our child be affectionate when she does not wish to. When we use our agenda to ride roughshod over our child’s preferences, we are the ones lacking respect.
Obedience and respect
There is an important difference between obedience and respect. Obedience means that we follow the instructions of an authority figure. Respect means that we show due regard for the feelings, wishes and rights of others. It seems that in this instance, when it comes to showing affection your preference for your daughter is for obedience over respect. Because your daughter is choosing not to obey, she is being called “disrespectful”. Perhaps she is choosing not to be obedient in a way that feels disrespectful. It can be hard for seven-year-olds to communicate something so nuanced and challenging in a mature, respectful way.
It is easy to see how obedience and respect can be confused. When we respect someone, we will show our regard for their wishes by complying with what they ask, most of the time. This is particularly true in parenting and especially with young children. When we do not wish to comply, we will try to explain, respectfully, why we do not wish to do what has been asked of us. Our children often try to communicate this politely. But from time to time we see their clumsy rejection of our preferences as disrespectful when what they are really being is disobedient – about something they should have the right to make up their own minds about.
Here’s an example from a parenting coaching client I worked with recently (names are changed):
Kylie was exasperated as she walked into the living room where Cooper, her 11-year-old son, was playing on the Xbox.
"Cooper, I’ve asked you three times to empty your school bag, tidy your room and do your guitar practise."
Cooper responded by pausing his game. He looked at Kylie and replied, “I know, Mum. But I’ve got about 10 minutes to go to finish this. I’ll do it soon.”
Kylie seethed. “You’ll do it now! I’m sick of repeating myself. None of you kids respect me! I ask you to do things over and over and you think this place is a damn hotel and I’m the maid! Now get off the stupid Xbox and do as you’re told or I’ll throw it in the bin!”
It is ironic that a significant proportion of adults think nothing of disrespectfully demanding respect from children they deem as failing to exhibit it themselves.
Was Cooper being disobedient or disrespectful?
He did not obey the instant he was asked to do something. Sometimes this is OK. Other times it is not. The context matters – and parents need to be discerning as to when they demand obedience and when to be satisfied with a respectful delay or even denial from a child.
What should you do?
Recognise that every child goes through this in one way or another, whether it relates to a new partner, or something as basic as when they will clean up their room – and it will last for many years yet. Children want to make up their own mind. We are designed to be autonomous, and make our own decisions. While the context may differ, every family experiences this struggle with their children.
While I don’t believe we should ever be requiring a child to show affection, there may be other times when your daughter chooses not to be obedient. Use this conversation to explain what your expectation is and why.
Invite your daughter to suggest ideal solutions to improve the situation, and then work on those ideas together. Teach her to say no in a respectful way.
Raising children is one of the hardest things we will ever do. We get stuck with knowing what to do. They stretch us. They want to make their own decisions. They chafe against too much control. And they crave being close to those they love and are related to over those they are less well acquainted with.
Don’t force her to engage with your new partner. Instead, let him continue to take his time, build the relationship in positive ways, and let trust grow. Eventually your daughter may feel safe enough to hug him. But don’t confuse a lack of hugs and affection with a lack of respect. Instead, learn how to ask for expressions of love in a respectful way, and respect your daughter’s decision to hug or not hug based on what feels right for her.
Do you think it's ok to require a child to be affectionate towards your new partner - especially after two years of being together?