Tell Me About It: She's just a mom who can't say no

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: I'm in a nine-month-old relationship with a woman who has a 5-year-old son. I have two slightly older kids of my own.

I love her dearly, and I love her son, however, I don't love the way she treats him. In my observations, she has no ability to say no and actually stick to it. When I say no to him, he respects it. When she says no, he quickly resorts to the crying tactic, and this almost always works. He's a smart kid, so he usually goes into crying mode at the first desire to have something because it works so well.

He rarely will eat what is cooked and she routinely makes a backup meal for him. I'm of the school that a meal given to you is The Meal, and the next meal is breakfast. Your choice. She does not agree. It's not just meals. I often witness him controlling the day's agenda. Or, will he grow up and not take no for an answer from his girlfriend?

She has talked about moving in together, but I know my sanity would quickly erode. The five of us all get along marvelously; I just have this one problem. When she says no and I get onboard with that, then she says yes, I feel jerked around. I also worry how my kids will react to this situation. Do you have any suggestions for how I can cope with this? I don't think I can plan a future with them unless it changes.

Answer: You think wisely - no future, at least not in the same household, unless you can reconcile your two approaches to child-rearing, which I'll get to in a second.

First, I need to dispense with something that has nagged at me about this question.

Nine months, and she's talking about moving in together? And she has a 5-year-old to guide, nurture, and protect?

I don't care how wonderful you are, that's too soon. She doesn't know you well enough to be sure she isn't setting her boy up for (more?) domestic chaos.

Pair that with her spinelessness in the face of her child's tears, when it's possible even my dog knows that being mushy about saying no makes for a spoiled and unhappy child, and it starts to look like something bigger than "just ... this one problem" - unless the one problem is your girlfriend's unwillingness or inability to resist immediate gratification.

If that's true, and, conveniently, even if it's not, the most useful thing you can do here is keep living in your separate households and get to know each other better, and more patiently.

Then, if that period of patience speaks well of both of your characters, enough to make a permanent commitment seem viable, then talk through, again, any remaining differences on parenting. Should you emerge from these conversations with unresolved differences, then it's time to turn pro: Either attend a reputable parenting seminar or class, or enlist the help of a good family therapist, together - thus introducing a neutral authority.

That way, your conversations won't be about each of you trying to bring the other to your side, but instead about establishing a third, responsible "side" where both of your families can meet.

E-mail Carolyn at, follow her on Facebook at or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at