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Dear Carolyn • I am in a relationship with a wonderful, intelligent man. We've been together three years and I adore him. He wants me to join him in a new home with his two kids, ages 7 and 9. He and his ex-wife co-parent peacefully. Here's my issue: I have never wanted kids and I have no experience with them, and my experience with his kids has me wanting to run the other direction. These kids behave abominably. They are allowed to protest every decision the parents make and both parents take this totally seriously. At the table, both kids smash their faces into their food, make odd noises and faces, and generally make a spectacle. I can't imagine living in a household like this. Is that behavior normal for kids this age, or are these kids out of control? I'm afraid this issue may make or break my relationship.

Balking by the Bay

Dear Balking • Odd noises and faces! I'll nod sympathetically and try not to smirk. I don't mean to ridicule your concerns. You've flagged a serious problem if indeed the kids run their parents; that's obnoxious with tweens, ugly-to-dangerous with teens and rarely ends well. But it would also be easy, and a mistake, to slap on the "symptom of real problems" label every time these kids blow a raspberry. The behaviors you question could partly reflect a cultural shift in childrearing away from an authoritarian, do-as-I-say model — which many are starting to believe produces mostly two dubious outcomes: stuntedness or rebellion. Kids need limits, of course — that's not open for debate. What you do know is you: kid-skeptical, unimpressed, balking. And, of course, smitten with the "wonderful, intelligent man" whose choices shaped the family dynamic you describe. Add up everything so far, then add the fact that prospective stepfamilies have more than enough challenges already, and here's what I suggest: Get out ... Or get help. Specifically, request "training wheels" in the form of a parenting class you take together. Just as premarital counseling offers a framework for discussing difficult aspects of marriage, parent workshops can be a safe place to explore how, together, you'd raise these kids.

Carolyn Hax's column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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