As a parent, you have the most important job in the world: Shaping the character of another human being and giving that human being the best possible chance at a happy, healthy, well-adjusted adult life.
Every choice you make, every day, influences your kids in a very direct way.
Bringing a new boyfriend or girlfriend home to meet the kids? That's a huge choice.
Before you dive into it, take some time to carefully consider whether or not your kids are ready for this kind of "big event."
The following guidelines and questions -- which I've used with hundreds of families in counseling and coaching sessions -- can help you to arrive at a confident decision.
Before your introduce a new sweetheart to your kids...
1. Are my kids ready to see me in a new relationship?
Is the ink barely dry on your divorce papers? Are your kids still adjusting to life without both parents living under one roof? Did you recently go through a break up that your kids had to witness? Are they still upset about it?
Use common sense and patience. Seeing you with a new partner -- mere weeks or months after the end of your previous relationship -- could feel disruptive to your kids.
This doesn't mean you're not allowed to date right now -- you certainly can if you want to! Enjoy your dates, just think twice before bringing your new sweetheart home.
If this new relationship is truly meant to last, there will be plenty of opportunities to have your kids get to know your new sweetie in the future.
2. What kind of messages do I want to give my kids when it comes to dating, love, sex and partnership?
Do you want to teach your kids that sex is something you do when you are lonely or bored, or something you do as part of a committed, devoted relationship?
Are you in a serious relationship with your new sweetheart, or is he or she just the flavor of the week or month?
Think carefully about the types of lessons you want to teach your kids. Make sure that your actions are in alignment -- not in conflict -- with the messages you want to impart.
3. Do my kids need more attention from me than I've been giving them lately?
When you're swept up in a new romance, it's common to have that new sweetheart become the focal point of your universe. You're experiencing a huge rush of happy-making endorphins and you just can't stop thinking about them!
This is understandable, but... your kids must come first. If you feel like you've been a little emotionally "checked out" lately -- or physically out of the house more than usual, going on dates or late dinners away from home -- this means it is time to be with your kids, just you and them, together, rather than introducing somebody new into the mix.
If your kids are feeling a bit forgotten or neglected, the last thing you want to do is bring home your sweetheart and then spend the day drooling and grinning at him -- or her. Seeing this will only make your kids feel more left out and abandoned -- which can lead to tantrums, outbursts, insolence and other cries for attention.
4. Do I plan to spend the rest of my life with my new sweetheart? Do they feel the same way about me?
This is THE big question. If you are not feeling certain that this person is Mr. Right or Ms. Forever, then it is definitely too soon to introduce this new person to your kids.
Why disrupt your kids' lives by bringing him or her into the picture if you're not feeling certain about the future?
5. Have I talked to my sweetheart about co-parenting to make sure we're on the same page?
If your sweetheart comes over to hang out with you and your kids -- for an hour, an evening, a weekend -- what are the ground rules?
Does your sweetheart understand the rules of your household? Are they responsible for enforcing consequences for misbehavior when you're out of the room -- or is that solely your responsibility? If you are eventually going to blend two families together, how will you agree upon things like bedtime, morning routines, curfews, chores?
This kinds of co-parenting conversations are absolutely essential. If you and your partner aren't clear, calm and unified, your kids will sense the disconnect, feel unsettled, and may very well respond by acting out and misbehaving.
Make sure you and your sweetheart are in alignment. That's the kind of strength and partnership your kids need to feel and see.
Remember: No matter how swoony, tingly and excited you feel about a new relationship, your children are -- and always will be -- your top priority.
The values you teach them now, while they are young, are the values that they are going to live by and teach their own children, too.
Focus on your children and their well-being. Make your home a happy one.
Focus on family life. Make your family a close-knit one.
Think carefully before you invest your time, energy and possibly your children's hearts into a new relationship.
Move thoughtfully. Be patient. Be wise. Always err on the side of caution. Go slow.
When it's truly the right time, you will know.
Suzanne Gelb, Ph.D., J.D., is a clinical psychologist, life coach and family law attorney. She believes that it is never too late to become the person you want to be. Strong. Confident. Calm. Creative. Free of all of the burdens that have held you back--no matter what has happened in the past.
Her insights on personal growth have been featured on more than 200 radio programs, 200 TV interviews and online at Forbes, Newsweek, Lifehacker, The Daily Love, Positively Positive, and many other places.