Richard Glade's 8-year-old daughter was just trying to report the facts when she innocently explained to her dad's date one evening that her dad liked another woman more.
Dating and parenting, as Glade has come to understand, are in many ways a disconcerting, and sometimes hazardous, combination.If you are a single parent who dates, you may remember wistfully all those unencumbered dates of your youth, when a small child did not tug on your leg and beg you not to go out tonight. Or a person 30 years younger than yourself did not quiz you about your date the next morning.
"It's a mix of roles that produces a certain amount of inevitable confusion," says Glade, a Salt Lake therapist and single parent. "The person you're dating is in sort of a no-man's land, and it's a very confusing place. You have another adult around, but that adult isn't (your child's) parent. There's no clear role description."
No wonder, then, that an 8-year-old might be indiscreet - and baffled.
Despite the inherent dangers, however, it is possible to be both a parent and a dater without causing irreversible trauma to your child, yourself or your date, say local therapists and singles. They offer this advice:
- Never assume that your child understands what dating means. "They may have a lot of questions that go unanswered," says Glade.
"Kids like information, but they may be afraid to ask," says Salt Lake psychologist Jane Blackwell. Sometimes children may try to get information in non-verbal ways - by being rude, for example.
- Explain to your children, even your teenagers, that there are all kinds of friendships, some casual, some more serious, and that getting to know someone takes a long time.
- Remember that children bond more quickly than adults. After being with someone just 10 times, says Glade, a child "is ready to give his heart away." Explaining the process of dating - including the fact that dating does not always lead to marriage - helps children feel better if the relationship does not work out.
"Unless the parent has taken the time to explain what is going on," says Glade, a child who has already lived through the loss of a divorce may relive the experience of loss all over again.
- Remember, too, that children may feel a double loss if they have taken on the role of the missing parent after a divorce - and then are displaced again by a date.
"The best way to handle this," says Glade, "is to talk carefully, consciously and clearly about it. Explain that (the date) is an addition, not a replacement."
- Children may also feel they are betraying one of their parents when the other parent begins to date. "It's important for them to know," says Glade, "that it is possible to have a warm relationship with several adults, and that doesn't mean betrayal of their biological parent."
- Deciding when to first introduce your date to your children depends on the age of the children and on how much socializing you and your spouse did before your divorce. Some children may be comfortable when new people are introduced into their lives; others may not be.
Glade advises that single parents not include dates on family-like activities with younger children until they are sure the date is someone they want to spend a lot of time with.
- Be careful not to see your date through your child's needs - choosing to get serious simply because you think you child will be happier, or because your child needs a mother or father.
- A lot of single parents "forget that their kids are kids," says Terri Twitchell, who gives seminars for singles. Discussing your dates with your kids places an impossible burden on the children.
Don't ask your children, "Which of my dates do you like best?" cautions Glade. "Instead you can ask: `What do you like about so-and-so?' "
- Don't get mad when a child says something mean to your date or in some other way tries to sabotage things.
"That's the child's attempt to deal with his own wounds," says Glade. "Try to deal with the wound directly, rather than get mad with the kid for messing up the date."
"If your date understands that your child has gone through as much trauma as an adult, then he can back off and give the child some space," says Twitchell, who adds: "Few men can do that. They see it as a personality clash."
"The single most important thing a parent can do in dating," concludes Glade, "is to step inside the child's shoes."