Ex-etiquette: Wicked stepmother?

Q. My kids tell me that their stepmother will not allow them in their home unless their dad is present. She asks them to sit outside until he gets home. It appears she hates them and wants nothing to do with them. He is so afraid of another divorce that he puts up with it. The kids tell me they are hungry and hot and it doesn’t matter. She reads your column. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. If she reads the column and takes any of it to heart, I can’t imagine why she would act the way you describe. That’s why the first thing I suggest when kids report implausible stories is to clarify if any of this is really happening as the kids describe. That means you must talk to their father. If he confirms it, that’s a problem. If he doesn’t know about it, that’s also a problem. There’s one more concern. The kids’ reporting may not be accurate. All these possibilities lead to the need for additional investigation.

For example, I once worked with a family who reported very similar things. Upon investigation, mom learned that the day the kids returned to dad’s was the day set aside for spring cleaning. The kids were asked to help but opted to sit outside and wait for dad. The story told to mom was that they were made to sit outside and could not come in. When dad was consulted, this was explained; however, if mom had not checked in with the child’s father — or even with the kids’ bonus mom — she would have reacted to something that was not entirely true.

Too many new couples think love will conquer all and do not take the steps to ensure that combining families will be a positive experience. There has to be a plan, an outline for success. If there is not, the family will flounder, each family member seeing things only from their perspective and having no vision for a unified identity.

I often talk about the necessary preparation couples with children must make prior to moving in together or marrying. I call it the “Before Bonus Exercise” and it can be found on the Bonus Families website, key word: Before exercise.

It suggests the couple sit down together and have a very serious heart-to-heart about the type of family they want to create: the kind of relationship they want to build with each other’s children and extended family; how they will handle discipline, chores, homework; and finally — possibly the most important thing — how their family will solve conflicts when they arise.

In other words, get organized before they become a family. If they have that conversation using Ex-etiquette Rule No. 8, “Be honest and straightforward,” as a guide, they will know right away if someone is a good choice for a partner. If that red flag waves, don’t be afraid to pull the plug. Your kids have already been through enough. That’s good ex-etiquette.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com.