Stepparent. Not a Role to Be Undertaken Lightly.

#stepparent  #stepchild  #blendingfamilies

Over the years, Matt and I grew closer and closer. When Melinda decided to pursue

My Stepson Matt McLeod at College Graduation with Melinda and John J. Hohn

an MBA at night school, Matt and I prepared, shared, and cleaned up after the evening meal twice a week—no big productions. We had a great time. Today, I love him as I do my own sons. We are different, certainly, but I respect and admire the differences. I find none of my own embarrassing personality traits reflected in him. The bond between us is different from the bond I have with my natural four sons and my daughter, but it is every bit as strong.  Matt loves and respects his natural father who has had shared custody over the years and been constant in his affection and dedication to his son’s welfare.

I was in the role of stepfather in a previous marriage, and I failed because I did not understand my position in the household and because my wife at the time and I did not agree on parenting styles. My own children, who are middle-aged adults today, laughed at my foolishness when they were growing up, but when all the fun cleared away, all of them knew that I was loving and that I had definite expectations of each of them.

My Adult Children Joe, Rachel, Jim, Eric and Greg, 2005

The mistake, of course, that Joyce Sherman in  makes Deadly Portfolio is that she expects to be important to her stepchildren. She expects their respect. She wants her rules obeyed even when the father of the children is absent from the home and generally not supportive. Joyce wants her role as a stepmother to be personally fulfilling. Her expectations are at the heart of her exasperation. A stepparent earns the respect of his or her stepchildren. It cannot be demanded. Neither can affection. Kids are practical. All they want to know is how they can benefit from having another adult in the household. If it means more hassles, more rules, more restrictions, more scolding, the air in the home with be charged with antipathy and frustration. A few guidelines need to be observed at least as a starting place.

  • Let the natural parent discipline.
  • Never interfere in disputes between the natural child and the parents or between the two parents. What you think does not matter. Your spouse may ask you afterwards. Until then, keep quiet and retire from the scene.
  • Share common interests with the child when they are in fact in common. Kids don’t like pretense or being patronized. Do not try to be a buddy.
  • Be patient. Do not force expression of affection, especially if your feelings are not genuine. Kids are sensitive to congruency in body language and tone of voice. They respect distance in a relationship when it is real. They consider it phony when boundaries are violated or forced. Wait until the child is open to your affection. Don’t be disappointed if it seems to take too long for that to happen.
  • If a stepchild is doing something and you disapprove, ask the child to stop until the natural parent becomes available. Let the child know that you are OK with whatever the natural parent decides. Everything should be on a “for now” basis.
  • Use “I messages” as opposed to “You messages.” “I would like you to please stop yelling.” “I want you to call if you cannot be back by 10. ” You may be ignored, but you would have been anyway. It’s not you; it’s them.
  • Explain yourself but be brief. Your own children know your preferences and your peeves. Stepchildren do not. Brief, friendly explanations help stepchildren understand that you are not being arbitrary.
  • Opposite gender parenting is especially sensitive, regardless of the age of the child. Respect boundaries—physical, emotional, and sexual. Do not be surprised if an opposite gender stepchild hints at crossing personal boundaries. He or she is only exploring the limits. Calmly deflect the interest. The child will get the message.
  • Stepparents are important to a child’s self-esteem. This is perhaps even more true in opposite gender step-parenting relationships. Boys and girls want to think of themselves as attractive. Reaffirming statements must absolutely avoid seductive innuendo or overtones. “That’s a very pretty dress,” is far better than “Who’s the lucky guy tonight.” “Great looking tan,” is far better, “The girls better be careful at the pool.” What’s OK from the natural parent may not be OK coming form you.

A stepparent assumes a powerful role in a child’s life. The child’s needs must always take precedent over the stepparent’s needs. The stepparent may live for several months, if not years, in uncertainty over a stepchild’s affection or acceptance. It goes with the turf. Overtly seeking affirmation from the child places the child in a position that he or she would not choose if left alone. Solicitous behavior is almost always seen as a weakness. The child can be expected to exploit it or treat it with derision.

Second marriages often breakup due to conflicts over parenting. Prospective partners need to make a discussion of parenting an open agenda item between them and seek professional help if necessary.