Dear Carolyn: Our nephew, who we are very close with, wants to visit us for a few days with his girlfriend. They live together, but we told him they would have to sleep in separate rooms in our house because we have three daughters – in middle and elementary school – who are young and impressionable.
Now we are not sure if he will stay with us because he does not like the proposed sleeping arrangements. Did we make the right decision?
Apparently not, if you have doubts after so little pushback.
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Doing what’s right is deceptively straightforward, though it does have three steps: Determine your principles; decide how far you’ll go to defend them given the possible consequences; then take your stands accordingly.
In this case it sounds as if you got to Step 1 and thought you were finished. Easy mistake.
The way to remedy it here – and avoid repeating it with your kids on a life matter instead of a nephew on a weekend matter – is to walk yourself through the likely consequence chains to test your own beliefs.
As was your prerogative, you established a rule that no unmarrieds share beds in your house. Again, you apparently assumed your nephew would cooperate, but he didn’t, as was his prerogative. Instead he handed you your first consequence: Your rule might cost you some guests.
Now imagine potential visits from other relatives – say, one who is older and maybe more accustomed to having authority over you and not vice versa. Can your widowed Aunt Ellie share a room with her steady companion?
What if your marriage crumbles on a hit from the blind side, and you find yourself five years from now unforeseeably in love with someone new. Will this person ever stay over, where, and how will you explain it all?
When your collegiate daughter announces plans to live off-campus in a rented home with five other students, some of them male, will you say no? What if she then doesn’t back down – will you pull tuition over it? What if you say yes because it’s a platonic arrangement, but then interhouse romance blooms. Will you make your daughter move out? Will tuition be on the line then?
What about when your girls are your nephew’s age and financially independent. Will you make them do the same separate-rooms dance when they bring companions home? What if they say sorry, no deal, the visit’s off?
What if a daughter rejects marriage on principle, pairs off extramaritally for life, has kids? Separate rooms still?
Such speculation might seem ridiculous now, with these hypotheticals so distant and with your impulse to protect your kids feeling so immediate. But the best way to raise moral people isn’t to shelter them, it’s to teach them in age-appropriate ways to be thoughtful, decent and real-world-ready – and the best way to do that isn’t to manage appearances, it’s to understand yourself thoroughly enough to be coherent in your message. And that starts now.
So if cohabitation is a hill you’re prepared to die on, then hold the line with nephews and others with the confidence that you’ve chosen your course and its consequences.
If instead you just want to avoid this conversation with young children, then tell your nephew it’s not a “never” issue, it’s a “not yet.” He can still decline to visit but at least it’s the start of a bridge.
If adult autonomy is your true north – meaning, if you ultimately will support your adult children’s choices, even when you disagree – then lay that foundation now: Let the couple share a room and answer any questions from your kids accordingly. “I believe couples should be married before sharing a home, but your cousin is an adult so I can’t make that decision for him.”
These are just examples, of course; the only right approach for you as parents is the one that reflects what you ultimately want to teach. Look ahead, beyond the battles you want to win, all the way to the battles you can win and really need to win. Self-knowledge and foresight are what elevate you from Whac-A-Mole parents to teachers of coherent, core beliefs.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com.