Q: My son is 14 and I wasn't around for most of his life, but about two years ago I reached out and he responded positively. We are now pretty close, but it's obvious he is closer to his stepdad, which I think is because he has been around since he was 2. Father's Day is right around the corner and I'm scheduled to be with my son, but I don't think he really wants to be with me. I don't know what's right or wrong here. Should I demand that we spend the day together or let him stay with his stepfather? What's good ex-etiquette?
A: Good ex-etiquette always begins with "Put the children first" (Ex-etiquette for parents rule No. 1), a rule that is especially helpful when it comes to making decisions like the one you have before you. When you use what is best for your children as the deciding factor, most answers are really quite simple. It's when parents let their own feelings color what's right or wrong that decisions become difficult. Good for you. You are searching for what is best for your child.
Don't jump to conclusions. It would be understandable if your son wanted to stay with his stepdad for Father's Day, but he could also be quite torn about the decision. Set the stage with a conversation that doesn't make him feel as if he must choose and lets him know he's wanted in both places.
Too often parents think that a child at 14 or 15 is old enough to choose where they want to spend their time. That puts far too much pressure on them, especially in your case when your son may be weighing his allegiance to a man who has raised him, against his allegiance to his biological father with whom he wants to nurture a relationship.
Luckily this doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. You can arrange the day so that your son can spend time with both of you. It starts with getting on the same page with his mother and stepfather and then present any decisions as a united front. You might arrange to pick up your son for a few hours and take him to lunch. Or, if that interferes with previous plans, suggest breakfast and have him back before noon. You may even want to start a new ritual and make the Saturday prior to Father's Day your day with your son — that way he can have time with both you and his stepdad without having to choose between the two of you — a choice that may get more difficult as time goes on.
You are lucky. It's not uncommon for kids who might feel abandoned or rejected by a wayward parent to rebuff the parent if they show up later. The fact that your son reacted positively is a tribute to his character, and to his mother and stepfather's character, as well. They have not let jealousy or envy interfere, but have given your son permission to love you so that your relationship with him can flourish. That is the essence of "put the child first." But, I have to say it, don't disappear again or you may not have their support again.
Happy Father's Day! Let's hope you all continue to work together in your son's best interest.
Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation," and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com.