Stepping Up to the Plate
Whether your stepchild lives with you and your spouse fulltime or for just a few days every month, there are parenting strategies that will be beneficial to implement as soon as possible.
The first rule of stepparenting is to avoid being the “parent.” That means you should let your spouse be the authority figure and dole out the discipline. “Kids are simply not ready for stepparents to take on a disciplinary role,” says Patricia Papernow, Ed.D., psychologist and author of Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families. “Remember that the parenting style that the children are familiar with was established well before the stepparent came into the picture.”
This doesn’t mean that you can’t have input. “In many ways you are an assistant parent,” says Richard Marcus, Ph.D., a psychologist and stepfather to three children. “It is the biological parent’s role to make critical decisions pertaining to the children.” As the assistant parent, you have a perspective that your spouse may lack. Be sure to offer any feedback in a gentle tone so your spouse isn’t put on the defensive.
Establishing the house rules is an appropriate place for you to add your input. These rules should include chores, homework schedules and curfews for older children, as well as communication styles, i.e., letting a person finish before talking. If the rules are different than what your stepchild is used to, remember to be flexible.
Lori Payne, a 40-year-old stepmother from Westchester, NY, knows firsthand the challenges of putting your foot down with a stepchild. Seven years ago, Lori married a man who had a 13-year-old son from a previous marriage. During the first few months, Lori remembers looking to her husband to set the rules and routine that she would be able to put into practice.
This got Lori into hot water with her stepson every so often. “I remember him asking me if he could go to a friend’s house,” she recalls. “He told me that he was allowed to go without asking his father. I wanted to wait and ask my husband. My stepson became very angry that I took this approach.” Although it made Lori angry that he would lash out like that, she realized that she had to be the grown up in the situation and stick to her guns.
It turned out that her stepson was not telling the truth. Her husband said he was not allowed to go to his friend’s house without asking. “My first thought was to scold him for lying,” she recalls. “Instead, I waited for my husband to take care of the situation. Over time, I have become more comfortable in my role of authority and my stepson has come to respect this position. But it did take time.”