Girl with 'real' dad wants to meet 'bio-dad'

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Chicago Tribune columnist Amy Dickinson and reporter Jenniffer Weigel help a caller deal with an unclear platonic relationship. Recorded live from the Chicago Tribune newsroom. March 7, 2013

Dear Amy: I'm the mother of a 13-year-old daughter, "Keri." Her biological father hasn't been in her life since she was a baby. We were teenagers with radically different outlooks. From the time I found out I was pregnant, I focused on support groups, my education and finding a job to support us.

My ex dropped out of sight. He never paid child support or saw her. I struggled to finish high school and find work, and then I met a wonderful man who loves Keri as his own child. We built a wonderful life and family together. He has been her "dad" for 10 years.

Keri has started asking questions about my ex, wondering what he's like and if she can meet him. We agree that she has the right to know about him. I looked up my ex, and he hasn't changed a bit. No job, involved with drugs, unstable and violent, and he wants nothing to do with her. I learned that he told his family and friends she died.

My husband and I agree that he isn't the type of person that we want in Keri's life. I don't want to tell her this "father" doesn't want to see her. I don't want her to know how violent my ex was, or that she was conceived through rape. I don't want her to know this reality, but I understand that she has the right to have at least some of her questions answered.

What is your opinion on what/how much we should tell Keri about her biological father?

— Undecided Mom

Dear Undecided: Your daughter is at an age where it is natural for her to have questions about her biological family. She no doubt fantasizes about her "real dad" (like most adolescents), even though — as you know — her "real" father is the man who loves her and has helped to raise her.

You and your husband should approach this carefully, thoughtfully — and as a family. A therapist with experience working with adolescents would help all of you to find the best way to frame this, but the goal should be for her to know the basic truth — presented in a way that she can grasp (I don't think it's wise to tell her she was conceived through rape). You would all benefit from talking through this painful issue individually and also as a family. Your daughter will grieve this abandonment, and you must be with her as she does, without feeling threatened by the process.

Your husband should also consider legally adopting your daughter. Going through this process could be joyful for all of you. That would be the happy ending for this difficult chapter.

Dear Amy: My son and daughter-in-law haven't talked to us ever since we had an argument five months ago. Our son will not answer my emails asking for forgiveness, and we have not seen our two grandchildren (ages 13 and 11).

What should we do?

— Heartbroken Grandmother

Dear Heartbroken: You don't say what this argument was about — or if it is a pattern of behavior for all of you. But because you are asking for forgiveness, I'm going to assume that you are at fault and are trying to make things right.

Asking for forgiveness without admitting wrongdoing can be seen as an attempt to paper over serious issues without trying to change.

You should try to meet with the couple in person (without the kids present). Tell them you would very much like to sort things out. Vow to listen and hope they will give you the opportunity.

Dear Amy: "EF in California" asked you at what age do you think children can use a public restroom by themselves. You said "around age 9."

Previously you advocated for kids to be "free range." You said that being independent is how they learn and grow.

How can you hold both positions — for and against kids being on their own?

— Confused

Dear Confused: I think around 9 is a good age for kids to move toward more independence. This includes using public restrooms, riding the bus and navigating through their neighborhood. Parents should encourage this.

All of this should happen in stages — and will depend on the temperament and maturity of the child.

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