#stepparent #parentingstyle #blendingfmailies #secondmarriage
I appreciate the responses to my postings about the role of a stepparent and step parenting. Several readers have shared their experiences, and I am including three of them here with comments as another installment of this series.
When Parenting Styles Clash
An Atlanta man wrote:
Our blended family consisted of my wife’s 15-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son and my 15-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son. On the face of it, you might think that having children in the same age ranges would make things easier as they would have common interests, attend the same schools, and consider one another as peers. It didn’t turn out that way. We wanted the girls to share the same bedroom so that one bedroom in the home could be reserved for guests. It did not work, and it was early evidence that our different parenting styles were going to cause trouble.
As parents, my ex-wife and I were not particularly strict, but we did have definite expectations of our children. There were consequences when the rules were not observed. One rule required our children to pick up their own bedrooms and keep them neat. My new wife had not insisted on the same from her daughter, my new stepdaughter, Jill. Jill (not her real name) was a slob. Her clothes littered her room. The carpet was stained from fast food snacks and makeup. She never made her bed. The worst of all, when the cat took a dump in one corner, the droppings remained there for weeks. Jill was the daughter of a professional woman. We were not living in a slum apartment but a beautiful five-bedroom home in a nice part of town.
My daughter could not abide the filth. The argument escalated until my daughter requested the guest room as a room for herself. I could not ignore her pleas. My wife, who was very lenient, did not oppose the move but became angry with me for suggesting that her daughter needed to keep her room clean and picked up. It was not my place, my wife argued, to nag Jill about it. I agreed and told my wife that it was her job to insist on tidiness from Jill. Then I was accused of telling her how to raise her children when my own were far from perfect. Jill overheard the arguments and soon everything deteriorated into a contest of wills. My wife may have said something to Jill, but Jill did not comply. She knew her mother would not insist. It was a clash of parenting styles.
The worst came when my wife discovered that her daughter had forged the birth date on her driver license so that she could gain admission to a nightspot that served alcoholic beverages. I insisted that the license should be destroyed and that Jill forbidden to go to the nightclub until she was of age. Her mother saw no harm in allowing it. Her position, as far as I was concerned, endorsed dishonesty on her daughter’s part. Even an appeal on behalf of the nightclub owner, whose license to operate was at stake, carried no weight with my wife. Every night, when Jill left the house, I knew she was carrying that forged license and I seethed with angry frustration watching her walk out the door.
Parenting Styles as an Indication of Personality
Anyone considering blending a family needs to realize is that parenting styles are a powerful statement about the personality and character of the parent. A strict, uncompromising dictatorial parent may have assumed that style out of deep-seated psychological needs that can only be worked out in a series of therapy sessions with a qualified counselor. The same can be said for the parents who are lenient to the point of endorsing irresponsible and anti-social behavior on the part of their children. The marriage or the family living room is not the arena where these differences can be resolved. Incompatible parenting styles should be viewed as a predictor of the marriage.
The couple needs to look at parenting style differences for what they are in the relationship between them as marriage partners. The uncompromising autocratic parent is likely to be a controlling spouse. The lenient, permissive parent is likely to be indifferent to the needs and concerns of a spouse, or non-assertive on important issues. There is no rule of thumb. A person’s parenting style is the product of his or her own psychological history and character formation.
Defining Boundaries and Setting Limits
A Virginia woman wrote:
I always felt as though I was in second place to my husband’s natural children in our blended family.
One winter evening, my husband needed to go back to the office for a couple of hours after dinner. I wanted to do something special. Our living room had a nice fireplace so I spread a blanket out in front of it to create a picnic and set some little desserts and chilled a bottle of wine. I turned the lights down low, lighted the fire, and put a romantic CD on the stereo. When my husband returned, we sat down together and began chatting about the day and all that had transpired. He complimented me on the wine and we nibbled on the snacks and a little on each other. Then his 15-year-old daughter came crashing through the front door. She could look in on us from the front hall foyer. To my utter dismay, my husband got up and gave her a hug, and invited her to join us in front of the fire. I don’t see how he could have misread everything that I had done.
I am not particularly proud of the way I handled things either. I got up, turned on the overhead lights and turned off the stereo. As I left the room, I told them both that if they needed anything else, they could find it in the kitchen. The next day we fought about it. My husband refused to see my point of view and kept insisting that it was my problem because I was jealous of his daughter and that he did not want his daughter to feel excluded because she would grow to resent me.
Surprises mean that at least one party is making a secret of his or her intentions. In time, a marriage that is focused on blending a family can accommodate surprises, but they are a risky undertaking in the first couple of years. The wife in the foregoing needed to set the expectation that she wanted time alone with her husband during the evening in question and telling him earlier in the day would have been a good move. She may have spoiled her surprise, but she would have saved the evening. She should check with herself to make certain that she was not setting it up tofail, a possibility especially if she knows the stepdaughter well and what her plans were for the evening.
The husband, however, can hardly be excused for missing the very clear clues as to what his wife wanted as an evening together. His behavior raised question about his sensitivity to his wife’s wishes in other situations. The scene also suggests that he was not interested, at least for the evening, in her sexually—a stinging discount. Further, his actions communicate to his daughter that she is more important to him than his wife. The daughter does not want to be put in that position in the family. If she is experiencing difficulty accepting direction and discipline from her stepmother, her father’s behavior seriously complicates things for both stepmother and stepchild. The daughter can decide that she is her daddy’s girl and nothing her stepmother requests needs to be considered, or she can be uncomfortable with a position that she knows is not rightfully hers and find herself conflicted toward both parents.
Children, whether in natural and blended families, need to know their limits and need to be taught to respect personal boundaries. Children learn more quickly from example and behavior than from being lectured or told. Thus, when the father invited his daughter to join him and his wife in what any fool could see was a romantic setting, he has also demonstrated to his daughter that she is free to cross the boundaries that should be respected between him and his wife as a couple and hers as a child.
When a couple gets into a new marriage that involves blending a family, they need to accept that nothing can be put into cruise control mode. Things may have gone smoothly in the previous household for the parents and the children. Boundaries were learned almost unconsciously. The same goes for permissions as limits were set. Natural children develop a keen sense of what their parents will allow and what they will object to. In blending a family, nothing can be assumed. It takes time. It takes work. But every expectation, no matter how minor, must be discussed openly.
One final example illustrates this point.
There Are No Little Things
A man from Minnesota wrote:
This may sound crazy, but my 16-year-old stepson’s table manners damn near broke up my second marriage. He chewed with his mouth open. He talked with food in his mouth. He used his fingers. It was disgusting to sit at the same table with him. When I tried to correct him, his mother bawled me out for it. I finally said that I would not sit at the same table with him if his manners did not improve. And that’s how we handled the problem. I ate in the kitchen. Even there it angered me to hear him chewing in the next room. Fortunately, he only ate with us two or three days a week.
In this final example, once the stepparent’s objections to the boy’s manners became an issue in front of of the boy at the family dinner table, the conflict escalates dramatically. The boy now has incentive for continuing his rude behavior as an expression of adolescent rebelliousness. In addition, his anti-social behavior is fueled quite possibly by a desire to reject the stepfather as an authority in the house and force his natural mother to chose between him and the stepfather. His mother, after all, tolerated the boy’s rude behavior for years until the stepfather entered the picture.
Do not be surprised that the smallest thing that was overlooked in the natural home of the child becomes a major, even painful, issue between the parents and the parents and the child in the blended family. Everything—no exceptions—must be discussed openly and agreement reached among all parties involved. Staying angry in the next room is never a healthy solution.